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On February 15, 1851, Shadrach Minkins was serving breakfast at a coffeehouse in Boston when history caught up with him. The first runaway to be arrested in New England under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, this illiterate black man from Virginia found himself the catalyst of one of the most dramatic episodes of rebellion and legal wrangling before the Civil War. In a remarkable effort of historical sleuthing, Gary Collison has recovered the true story of Shadrach Minkins' life and times and perilous flight. His book restores an extraordinary chapter to our collective history and at the same time offers a rare and engrossing picture of the life of an ordinary black man in nineteenth-century North America.
As Minkins' journey from slavery to freedom unfolds, we see what day-to-day life was like for a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, for a fugitive in Boston, and for a free black man in Montreal. Collison recreates the drama of Minkins' arrest and his subsequent rescue by a band of black Bostonians, who spirited the fugitive to freedom in Canada. He shows us Boston's black community, moved to panic and action by the Fugitive Slave Law, and the previously unknown community established in Montreal by Minkins and other refugee blacks from the United States. And behind the scenes, orchestrating events from the disastrous Compromise of 1850 through the arrest of Minkins and the trial of his rescuers, is Daniel Webster, who through the exigencies of his dimming political career, took the role of villain.
Webster is just one of the familiar figures in this tale of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. Others, such as Frederick Douglass, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Harriet Jacobs, andHarriet Beecher Stowe (who made use of Minkins' Montreal community in Uncle Tom's Cabin), also appear throughout the narrative. Minkins' intriguing story stands as a fascinating commentary on the nation's troubled times—on urban slavery and Boston abolitionism, on the Underground Railroad, and on one of the federal government's last desperate attempts to hold the Union together.
Collison (English/Pennsylvania State Univ.) here assembles a life, almost as though it were a jigsaw puzzle, with the barest of information: a few census reports, a will, an auctioneer's advertisement, some newspaper articles. Although Shadrach Minkins was something of a celebrity in his lifetime, almost no trace of him remains for the historian today. Because he was born a slave in Norfolk, Va., in the early 19th century, Minkins's birth and early life are recorded only inasmuch as they related to the holding or transfer of property. And when he escaped to Boston in 1850, had he not been considered valuable property, Minkins could have easily disappeared. But he was pursued by an agent of his master and arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. He was taken to trial and thought doomed by his lawyers until a mob of Boston's black citizens burst into the courtroom, lifted up the startled Minkins, and spirited him out of the city. He arrived soon after in Montreal, where he remained for the rest of his life. Unlike other fugitive slaves who wrote narratives of their adventures, Minkins was illiterate. So Collison had little to work with beyond the highly suspect newspaper accounts of Minkins's rescue (the number of the rescuing mob was variously reported as 100, 200, 300, and 500, although the actual number was probably closer to 20) and his unusual first name, Shadrach. It was because of this name that Collison discovered Minkins in a Montreal census, even though his surname had been misrecorded as Nichols, and was able to reconstruct the final portion of this unique life.
Atmospheric, highly readable, and instructive; this is first-rate history.
|1.||"Han't Got No Self"||9|
|2.||"Horses and Men, Cattle and Women, Pigs and Children"||23|
|3.||"The Silver Trump of Freedom"||39|
|4.||"Cradle of Liberty"?||61|
|5.||"A New Reign of Terror"||75|
|6.||"Much Excitement Prevails"||91|
|7.||"A Thing ... or a Man?"||110|
|8.||"Plucked as a Brand from the Burning"||124|
|9.||"Never Was a Darker Day"||134|
|11.||"Please to Remember Me Kindly"||169|
|12.||A Home Far Away||184|
|13.||"Free at Last! Free at Last!"||203|
|Militia Petition by Black Residents of Montreal||227|