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Remembering one of the most dramatic protests in Boston history, when the arrest of a Black man sparked outrage

A notice protesting the return of Anthony Burns, who had settled in Boston, to slavery in Virginia.
A notice protesting the return of Anthony Burns, who had settled in Boston, to slavery in Virginia.Boston Public Library/Rare Books and Manuscripts Department (custom credit)

Civil unrest is part of this city’s history, and one of the most dramatic protests to ever unfold in Boston occurred 166 years ago.

At the center of it all was Anthony Burns, a Black man who escaped slavery in Virginia and settled in Boston. When he was arrested in 1854 for being a fugitive slave, it sparked outrage among abolitionists. There were angry protests in the streets, and martial law was declared in downtown Boston.

Burns’ plight is the topic of a new documentary produced by the National Park Service rangers in Boston.

The 17-minute video, “A Man Kidnapped: The Rendition of Anthony Burns," is now available to view online on the National Park Service website.

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"It’s a really important — and fascinating — story,” said Shawn Quigley, a park ranger who helped make the film.

The video chronicles the tumultuous events of May 26, 1854, when thousands of Bostonians gathered at Faneuil Hall to protest Burns’ arrest and an angry mob went to Court Square shouting “Rescue him!"

A crowd of militant protesters — both white and Black — gathered around the courthouse where Burns was being held. Some men grabbed a ladder and began beating it against the door. Protesters swung axes, and a group men grabbed a wooden beam from a nearby construction site and used it as a battering ram, smashing it against the door until it broke open. They threw stones. Shots were fired. As the crowd tried to force its way inside the building, US Marshals beat the back the angry mob with nightsticks. A deputized marshal named James Batchelder was killed at the scene.

“There was a hand-to-hand melee,” said Park Ranger Eric Hanson Plass. “He died just inside the courthouse the door.”

But the rioters’ rescue effort was unsuccessful, and a few days later, on June 2, Burns was taken out of the building in handcuffs and led down to a ship in the harbor that would take him back to Virginia. An estimated 50,000 people came out to watch and protest the procession down State Street. Black drapes were hung in windows, American flags were displayed upside down, and protesters strung up a coffin with the word “Liberty” inscribed on it above the intersection of Court, State and Washington streets.

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After Burns was sent back to Virginia, he was sold to another slave owner, but did not stay enslaved for long. The Rev. Leonard A. Grimes of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston and other abolitionists helped raise money to purchase Burns’ freedom.

The National Park Service and Boston African American National Historic Site has been sharing video clips from the new documentary about Burns on Twitter and Facebook.

“In the aftermath of the Burns case, many in the town of Boston changed their opinions on slavery in the United States,” the Facebook post said. “This case proved to be a flashpoint, forcing many people for the first time to take a stand on an issue they previously either ignored or had no knowledge of.”



Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.