Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Union or Secession
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  • "Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law," Broadside, American Cartoon Print Filing Series, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.,
    Fugitive slave law
  • <em>Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself</em>, First English Edition (Manchester, Eng.: 1851), 60–61.,
    Henry Brown escapes from slavery
  • Anthony Burns to Baptist Church at Union, Fauquier County, Virginia, 1855, printed in Charles Emery Stevens, <em>Anthony Burns: A History</em> (Boston, 1856), 281–283. Collections of the Library of Virginia.,
    "God made me a man"
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Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Enslaved Virginians mounted no large-scale revolts after Nat Turner's uprising in 1831, but they undermined the slave economy by working inefficiently, taking goods from their masters, breaking tools, and running away. Men and women who escaped from slavery focused attention in the free states on the debate about the morality of slavery. Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 also increased sectional distrust. For decades before 1850, many men and women who escaped from slavery were able to avoid being captured and returned to their owners, but the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850, empowered federal officials to assist owners seeking to reclaim runaway slaves.

Henry Box Brown shipped himself from Virginia to Pennsylvania in a box in 1849 and became a popular antislavery speaker in the North. Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 forced him to move to England to avoid the danger of being sent back into slavery. Anthony Burns escaped from Virginia to Massachusetts in 1854, but following a court proceeding and a riot in Boston he was returned to slavery in Virginia. Later freed, he too became a popular speaker and opponent of slavery. During the secession winter of 1860–1861, Sara Lucy Bagby gained widespread attention when officials in Ohio returned her to slavery in western Virginia with the acquiescence of local white abolitionists.

Featured Biographies:

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  • Henry Box Brown (ca. 1815-after 1889)
  • Anthony Burns (1834-1862)
  • James Alexander (1804-1887)
  • Andrew Hunter Holmes Boyd (1814-1865)
  • Thomas Greene Broughton (1786-1861)
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