On this day in 1851, the fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins, a native of Norfolk, quietly crossed into Canada and became a free man. As you might imagine, it had been a long road. First, he had escaped to Boston, where he got a job waiting tables at an upscale coffee house. But passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made his position precarious, and soon enough he was recognized and arrested. Amazingly, however, a crowd (or mob, depending upon your point of view) managed to break its way into the courtroom and rescue Minkins. From our entry:
Approximately twenty black men led the assault, and it is unclear whether their action was prearranged or spontaneous. Regardless, they burst through the outer door and then through a second, inner door before entering the courtroom. Witnesses described Minkins, who was standing with the Reverend [Leonard A.] Grimes [of Virginia] at the time, as looking frightened and confused. Four or five black men grabbed him and roughly carried him out of the courthouse, his clothes partially ripped off. According to the scholar Gary Collison, “The rescuers headed north along Court Street, 200 or more following like the tail of a comet.” If the deputy marshals pursued, it was only for a few blocks.
A bit of perseverance, organization, and luck, and—voilà!—Minkins had made it to Canada, where he lived out the rest of his days. In the meantime, the administration of Millard Fillmore was furious, including the president’s secretary of state, Daniel Webster, who had been an architect of the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act. On the same day that Minkins escaped into Canada, Webster addressed a letter to a group of New Yorkers, on the occasion of George Washington‘s birthday, describing Minkins’s rescue as, “strictly speaking, a case of treason.”
You can read the whole thing here.
IMAGE: Comet’s Tail by Mário Azevedo