In a Washington Post op-ed piece “To Resist a Trump Presidency, ask: ‘What Would the Abolitionists Do?’” (2/17/17), Linda Hirshman recalls the plight of Anthony Burns who sailed to Boston in 1854 escaping his enslavement in northern Virginia.
Unitarians Rev. Theodore Parker and Samuel Gridley Howe, a renowned teacher of the blind and husband of Julia Ward Howe who would write the Battle Hymn of the Republic, as leaders of the Boston Vigilance Committee ensured that Burns would remain safe and free, being fully employed in a tailor’s shop. The Committee had successfully spirited many runaway slaves to Canada. Parker, in fact, kept one runaway safe in his home, with a brace of pistols on his desk as he wrote the next Sunday’s sermon. Burns, unfortunately, wrote to his still-enslaved brother. The letter was intercepted by his former “owner” who then traveled to Boston seeking to recover his “property” under the Fugitive Slave Act.
The Fugitive Slave Act put the full force and power of the Federal government behind the recovery of escaped slaves. Burns was arrested. But while Parker spoke at Faneuil Hall condemning his arrest, another Unitarian minister, Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, raided the jail to free Burns. The raid was unsuccessful. Burns, under guard by the U.S. Army, was marched to a ship in the harbor, the army band insultingly playing Carry Me Back to Old Virginny as angry Bostonians lined the route with American flags draped upside down, witness to a dark period in American history. Parker and Higginson were arrested for inciting a riot, but the charges were dropped when the prosecution realized it could not get a conviction in the city. Bostonians eventually purchased Burns’ freedom.
Today, Jeannette Vizguerra, an undocumented immigrant fearful of separation from her three young children is safe from immigration authorities, living in a makeshift bedroom in the basement of the First Unitarian Society of Denver. Hundreds of cities and towns across America have declared themselves sanctuaries. As our abolitionist forebears fought to end slavery, today UU congregations across the country, with assistance from the UU College of Social Justice and the UU Service Committee, are considering joining with The First Unitarian Society of Denver to become sanctuaries. Should we?
Editor’s note: We editors love Jim Caldiero’s use of historical narrative to enrich our understanding of current social-justice issues.
For more about Unitarian Universalism and 21st Century sanctuary churches, see http://www.uua.org/immigration/witness/partners/newsanctuary. And if you’re local to Columbia, please join our conversation on March 12 or 19 – here are the details.