Nation & World

Commentary: Freed from slavery, Lewis Hayden became a leader in Boston

With his own debt of freedom repaid, Lewis Hayden could focus on helping others become free. The escaped slave from Lexington already had accomplished a lot by this time, as I wrote in last Wednesday's column.

By the late 1840s, Hayden was a leader in Boston's black community. His boarding house and clothing store were important stops on the Underground Railroad, which helped escaped slaves start new lives in the North.

The American Anti-Slavery Society hired Hayden in 1847 as an "agent" to travel throughout the North and speak about his experiences as a slave. He was sorely disappointed when the organization's white leaders let him go after about six months, according to Lewis Hayden and the War Against Slavery, a 1999 book by Joel Strangis, a former administrator at Sayre School in Lexington.

Apparently, Hayden was not as effective a speaker as some of the society's other agents, who included Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, another former Lexington slave, who would become America's first successful black novelist.

The break might have been for the best. Hayden was growing impatient with the Anti-Slavery Society and pacifist leaders such as William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator newspaper. They seemed to be all talk and no action. Circumstances would soon force Hayden into action.

The Compromise of 1850, Henry Clay's attempt to avoid the inevitable Civil War, included a fugitive slave law. Among other things, the law made it a crime to help an escaped slave, and it forced federal officials to become slave-catchers.

The law sent shock waves through Boston's black population. Hayden and most of the city's 2,000 black residents were now in personal jeopardy, and they were determined to fight back.

After federal marshals arrested an escaped slave named Shadrach at a coffee house where he worked, Hayden and others snatched him from the courthouse and smuggled him out of Boston. President Millard Fillmore was outraged, and Clay denounced the incident on the floor of the Senate, asking "whether we shall have a government of white men or black men in the cities of this country."

Hayden continued to help dozens of fugitive slaves, sometimes by force, and his fame grew.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the 1852 best-seller Uncle Tom's Cabin, interviewed Hayden and included his harrowing account of childhood slavery in Lexington in her 1853 follow-up book, The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. (Read the excerpt on my blog:

In 1858, Hayden met abolitionist John Brown, who spoke of his plans to incite an armed slave revolt. Hayden raised money for what would become Brown's unsuccessful raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry in October 1859.

When the Civil War finally came, Hayden had a friend in Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew. They had known each other for years, and Hayden had helped the lawyer get elected to the legislature in 1857.

Still, many eyebrows were raised when the Pilgrim State's governor accepted an invitation to dine at Lewis and Harriet Hayden's home on Thanksgiving 1862. It wasn't just a social occasion: Hayden took the opportunity to urge Andrew to persuade President Abraham Lincoln to allow blacks to fight for the Union.

Once Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect a few weeks later, Andrew formed the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Hayden was too old to serve, but he recruited troops for the unit, which had black enlisted men but white officers. The regiment's story was told in the 1989 Academy Award-winning movie Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman.

After the war, Hayden promoted Freemasonry as a way for black men to help one another advance. And, in 1873, he was elected to a term in the Massachusetts legislature. (He was one of Massachusetts' first state employees in 1858, when he got a job as a messenger in the secretary of state's office.)

Hayden spent his last years on a goal he had worked 30 years to achieve. He wanted a monument on the Boston Common honoring Crispus Attucks, the only mixed-race man killed by British troops in the "Boston Massacre" of March 5, 1770, which helped spark the American Revolution.

Hayden had to settle for a monument honoring all five "massacre" victims. But he was on the platform when it was dedicated in 1888, with Attucks' name at the top of the list. Hayden died the following year and is buried in Everett, Mass.