The amazing life of Lexington slave Lewis Hayden. (Part 2)

February 12, 2013

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 here.)

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.


Lewis Hayden tells his story to author of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’

February 12, 2013

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, created a sensation when it was published in 1852. It also brought complaints from Southerners that her depictions of slavery were fabrications. So, the next year, she published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to bolster her case. The book included her interview with Lewis Hayden. Here is that excerpt:

The following account was given to the writer by Lewis Hayden. Hayden was a fugitive slave, who escaped from Kentucky by the assistance of a young lady named Delia Webster, and a man named Calvin Fairbanks. Both were imprisoned. Lewis Hayden has earned his own character as a free citizen of Boston, where he can find an abundance of vouchers for his character.

I belonged to the Rev. Adam Rankin, a Presbyterian minister in Lexington, Kentucky.

My mother was of mixed blood—white and Indian. She married my father when he was working in a bagging factory near by. After a while my father’s owner moved off and took my father with him, which broke up the marriage. She was a very handsome woman. My master kept a large dairy, and she was the milk-woman. Lexington was a small town in those days, and the dairy was in the town. Back of the college was the masonic lodge. A man who belonged to the lodge saw my mother when she was about her work. He made proposals of a base nature to her. When she would have nothing to say to him, he told her that she need not be so independent, for if money could buy her, he would have her. My mother told old mistress, and begged that master might not sell her. But he did sell her. My mother had a high spirit, being part Indian. She would not consent to live with this man, as he wished; and he sent her to prison, and had her flogged, and punished her in various ways, so that at last she began to have crazy turns.

When I read in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” about Cassy, it put me in mind of my mother, and I wanted to tell Mrs. S—about her. She tried to kill herself several times, once with a knife and once by hanging. She had long, straight black hair, but after this it all turned white, like an old person’s. When she had her raving turns, she always talked about her children. The jailer told the owner that if he would let her go to her children, perhaps she would get quiet. They let her out one time, and she came to the place where we were. I might have been seven or eight years old—don’t know my age exactly. I was not at home when she came. I came in and found her in one of the cabins near the kitchen. She sprung and caught my arms, and seemed going to break them, and then said, “I’ll fix you so they’ll never get you!” I screamed, for I thought she was going to kill me; they came in and took me away. They tied her, and carried her off. Sometimes, when she was in her right mind, she used to tell me what things they had done to her. At last her owner sold her, for a small sum, to a man named Lackey. While with him she had another husband and several children. After a while this husband either died or was sold, I do not remember which. The man then sold her to another person, named Bryant. My own father’s owner now came and lived in the neighbourhood of this man, and brought my mother with him. He had had another wife and family of children where he had been living. He and my mother came together again, and finished their days together. My mother almost recovered her mind in her last days.

I never saw anything in Kentucky which made me suppose that ministers or professors of religion considered it any more wrong to separate the families of slaves by sale than to separate any domestic animals.

There may be ministers and professors of religion who think it is wrong, but I never met with them. My master was a minister, and yet he sold my mother, as I have related.

When he was going to leave Kentucky for Pennsylvania, he sold all my brothers and sisters at auction. I stood by and saw them sold. When I was just going up on to the block, he swapped me off for a pair of carriage-horses. I looked at those horses with strange feelings. I had indulged hopes that master would take me into Pennsylvania with him, and I should get free. How I looked at those horses, and walked round them, and thought for them I was sold!

It was commonly reported that my master had said in the pulpit that there was no more harm in separating a family of slaves than a litter of pigs. I did not hear him say it, and so cannot say whether this is true or not.

It may seem strange, but it is a fact. I had more sympathy and kind advice, in my efforts to get my freedom, from gamblers and no doubt the other, and such sort of men, than Christians.

Some of the gamblers were very kind to me.

I never knew a slave-trader that did not seem to think, in his heart, that the trade was a bad one. I knew a great many of them, such as Neal, McAnn, Cobb, Stone, Pulliam, and Davis, &c. They were like Haley—they meant to repent when they got through.

Intelligent coloured people in my circle of acquaintance, as a general thing, felt no security whatever for their family ties. Some, it is true, who belonged to rich families, felt some security; but those of us who looked deeper, and knew how many were not rich that seemed so, and saw how fast money slipped away, were always miserable. The trader was all around, the slave-pen at hand, and we did not know what time any of us might be in it. Then there were the rice-swamps, and the sugar and cotton plantations; we had had them held before us as terrors, by our masters and mistresses, all our lives. We knew about them all; and when a friend was carried off, why, it was the same as death, for we could not write or hear, and never expected to see them again.

I have one child who is buried in Kentucky, and that grave is pleasant to think of. I’ve got another that is sold nobody knows where, and that I never can bear to think of.

— LEWIS HAYDEN.


The amazing life of Lexington slave Lewis Hayden. (Part 1)

February 6, 2013

When the Marquis de Lafayette visited Lexington in May 1825, during his celebrated national tour, a slave child of 13 slipped away from his chores long enough to try to catch a glimpse of the French hero of the American Revolution.

Lewis Hayden would later recall sitting alone on a fence as the parade passed through town. As Lafayette’s open carriage approached, the most famous man Hayden had ever heard of turned and bowed his head to acknowledge him.

“That act burnt his image upon my heart so that I shall never need a permit to recall it,” Hayden would later tell friends. “I date my hatred of slavery from that day.”

One of the things I love about reading history, especially black history, is discovering fascinating people of great accomplishment I previously knew nothing about.

I had never heard of Hayden until last year, when William Thomas gave me an old library copy of Joel Strangis’ 1999 book, Lewis Hayden and the War Against Slavery. That led me to other sources that also told the story of a Lexington man who escaped slavery, settled in Boston and led a remarkable life.

Thomas, a Lexington retiree, is the leader of a nonprofit foundation trying to raise money to buy and preserve the old First African Baptist Church building at Short and Deweese streets. Thomas dreams of turning this handsome old church, built around 1856 by a slave congregation, into a performance hall and arts academy.

Like Hayden, Thomas found success in Boston. After graduating from Lexington’s then-segregated schools, Thomas became an accomplished musician, built an outstanding orchestra during a 36-year career at Phillips Andover prep school and headed Project STEP, a classical music academy for gifted minority students run by the Boston Symphony and New England Conservatory of Music.

Thomas says the restored church building would be a fitting tribute to 19th-century Lexington blacks who accomplished great things against all odds. Coincidentally, he said, the church is at the site of a former clock and cabinet shop where Hayden worked for one of his masters, Elijah Warner.

Strangis’ book tells how Hayden was sold to Warner by his first master, the Rev. Adam Rankin, whose circa 1784 house is the oldest still standing in Lexington.

While Hayden belonged to Warner, he married another slave, Esther, and they had a son. But when Esther’s owner’s business failed, she and their son were purchased by Henry Clay. The statesman later sold them South, and Hayden never saw his family again. He married a second time, to Harriet Bell, a slave who had a young son.

Hayden was sold in 1840 to a man who whipped him, then two years later to two businessmen who leased him to the Phoenix Hotel, where he worked as a waiter.

Through his various jobs, Hayden learned more than most slaves did about the white world, including how to read. Inspired by Lafayette and angry with Clay, Hayden vowed that he and his second family would be free someday.

In the fall of 1844, Hayden planned his escape with help from two white abolitionists, Delia Webster, a Vermonter who ran a Lexington girls’ school, and Calvin Fairbank, a ministerial student at Oberlin College in Ohio who helped free several Kentucky slaves. They smuggled the Hayden family across the Ohio River, and the Underground Railroad helped them all the way to Canada.

Webster and Fairbank were not so fortunate. Convicted of helping the Haydens escape, Webster became one of the first women imprisoned in Kentucky, although she was pardoned two months into her two-year sentence. Fairbank spent five years in prison.

After a short time in Canada, Hayden felt called to return to this country and join the anti-slavery movement. His family settled in Boston, running a clothing store and boarding house, and assisting escaped slaves.

Hayden learned in 1849 that if he repaid his Lexington owner $650 as compensation for his loss, the man would petition Kentucky’s governor to free Fairbank. So Hayden bought the freedom of the man who had helped him secure his.

If Lewis Hayden’s story ended there, it would be remarkable. But he went on to do much, much more. Read about that in my column next Wednesday.