On 2nd June 1854, following a failed rescue attempt at the courthouse, huge numbers of angry protesters lined the streets of Boston as hundreds of federal soldiers led twenty-year-old Anthony Burns to the harbour where he was to be shipped to Virginia, back to the life of slavery he had escaped just three months earlier. His arrest was only possible due to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which enabled enslavers to enter free states and retrieve their slaves. One person to write about this travesty was Charlotte Forten, a sixteen-year-old student who would go on to become a prominent civil rights activist, poet, and teacher, her journals serving as poignant accounts of the escalating tensions and injustices of the era. Below is her entry on that fateful day. A year later, thanks to the efforts of a Baptist preacher, Burns’ freedom was purchased for $1,200 and he returned to Massachusetts. Tragically, he died of tuberculosis at the young age of 28.
The Diary Entry
June 2, 1854. Our worst fears are realized; the decision was against poor Burns, and he has been sent back to a bondage worse, a thousand times worse than death. Even an attempt at rescue was utterly impossible; the prisoner was completely surrounded by soldiers with bayonets fixed, a cannon loaded, ready to be fired at the slighted sign. To-day Massachusetts has again been disgraced; again she has shewed her submission to the Slave Power; and Oh! with what deep sorrow do we think of what will doubtless be the fate of that poor man, when he is again consigned to the horrors of Slavery. With what scorn must that government be regarded, which cowardly assembles thousands of soldiers to satisfy the demands of slaveholders; to deprive of his freedom a man, created in God’s own image, whose sole offense is the color of his skin! And if resistance is offered to this outrage, these soldiers are to shoot down American citizens without mercy; and this by the express orders of a government which proudly boasts of being the freeest in the world; this on the very soil where the Revolution of 1776 began; in sight of the battle-field, where thousands of brave men fought and died in opposing British tyranny, which was nothing compared with the American oppression to-day. In looking over my diary, I perceive that I did not mention that there was on the Friday night after the man’s arrest, an attempt made to rescue him, but although it failed, on account of there not being men enough engaged in it, all honor should be given to those who bravely made the attempt. I can write no more. A cloud seems hanging over me, over all our persecuted race, which nothing can dispel.
- You can read a selection of entries from the Journals of Charlotte Forten on the website of the National Humanities Center.
- The Massachusetts Historical Society has some interesting documents relating to Burns, as does the Library of Congress.
- Both Anthony Burns and Charlotte Forten have fairly detailed pages over at Wikipedia.