The Boston Vigilance Committee
by Thomas Sartor
Pre-Civil War Boston was an intense place to be for escaped slaves as well as people involved with the abolition movement. In 1836 Boston witnessed the Abolition Riot and in 1842 the Supreme Court ruled that the federal Fugitive Slave Act nullified the laws of free states that could help any escaped slaves. For an organization like the Boston Vigilance Committee, this decision would make their goal of helping escaped slaves continue toward Canada much more difficult to accomplish legally. The BVC was an abolitionist organization founded in June of 1841 and continued operation until April of 1861. The members of the Boston Vigilance Committee all actively risked imprisonment as well as massive fines if they were caught helping escaped slaves find their freedom.
The BVC looked to help “fugitive” slaves along their journey north, coordinating with conductors of the Underground Railroad. They would provide freedom-seeking slaves with shelter, medical attention, transportation, legal counsel, passage fees, general funds, and even sometimes weapons. The Committee sent at least thirty-four groups of escaped slaves to Canada, two to England, and four to other parts of the United States. Escaped slaves in the Boston area would be alerted upon the arrival of any slave catchers. Any interaction with a slave catcher would result in the kidnapping and forced return for any “fugitive” slaves. Members of the BVC would often raise money to buy the freedom of any “fugitives” doomed to return to a life of slavery. They encouraged people to resist the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and sometimes took part in violent rescue attempts. They helped hundreds of escapees throughout their active years. All of these actions were considered illegal.
The particular story that caught my attention happened in 1850 and involved a man named Shadrach Minkins. Mr. Minkins was born into slavery around 1817 in Norfolk, VA. He escaped slavery and arrived in Boston in 1850 where he worked as a waiter. He was arrested by US Marshals, posing as customers, shortly after Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act. Shadrach Minkins was the first “fugitive” to be arrested in Boston. The BVC hired a team of four lawyers to defend Minkins as protestors amassed outside the courthouse demanding his release.
On the February 15, 1851 a group of about 20 protestors lead by Lewis Hayden, including John J. Smith and John P Coburn, stormed the courtroom and forcibly freed Shadrach Minkins. Mr. Minkins escaped in a wagon to Beacon Hill before eventually making it to Canada via the Underground Railroad. He later settled in Montreal. The efforts to protect the freedom of another human caused Lewis Hayden, Robert Morris, and Elizur Wright to be arrested. All three were later acquitted. Wright wasn’t actually as involved in the rescue as Hayden and Morris. He was swept up with the crowd and was arrested regardless.
The Boston Vigilance committee was certainly not risk averse. The reason we know as much as we do about the BVC and so little about other Vigilance Committees of the time is because they kept thorough record of their activities, which were mostly illegal. The men and women of the BVC risked a lot because they couldn’t stand by as other people were stripped of their dignity, humanity, and freedom. Direct confrontation with law enforcement, judicial, and governmental powers is not for the faint of heart. The protestors who stormed the courtroom to free Mr. Minkins risked everything to ensure another human could keep his freedom. We’re not big fans of violence here at the Hero Construction Company but we can agree that the BVC affiliated protestors acted heroically to save a man from a life of slavery and whatever punishments awaited the return of an escaped slave.
There are a lot of interesting people I didn’t mention nor delve deeply into in this article as I was focused on Shadrach Minkins’ story. Other interesting and heroic members/affiliates of the Boston Vigilance Committee include:
-Charles Torrey-an American abolitionist who set up one of the first very organized routes of the Underground Railroad, pushed the abolitionist movement toward more political and aggressive strategies, and is credited with personally freeing approximately 400 slaves.
-John P. Coburn- an African-American abolitionist and civil rights activist, treasurer of New England Freedom Association, Founder of Massasoit Guards, patron of The Liberator.
-Lewis Hayden- an escaped slave who later became an abolitionist, lecturer, businessman, and politician when he was elected in 1873 as a representative from Boston to the Massachusetts state legislature.
-Robert Morris- one of the first African-American attorneys in the United States. Filed and tried the first U.S. civil rights challenge to segregated pubic schools in 1848. One of the lawyers to defend Shadrach Minkins
-William Cooper Nell- an African-American abolitionist, journalist, publisher, and author. He worked for the integration of public schools and facilities in the state. Helped found the New England Freedom Association and the Boston Vigilance Committee.