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On this day in 1850

May 3, 1850

Shadrach Minkins, right, worked at the Cornhill Coffee House and Tavern, believed to have been located in the highlighted area.
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Shadrach Minkins, right, worked at the Cornhill Coffee House and Tavern, believed to have been located in the highlighted area. Credit: Courtesy of National Park Service

Shadrach Minkins, already separated from his family, escaped from the Norfolk, Virginia, home, where he was enslaved. He made his way to Boston, where he did odd jobs until he began working as a waiter at Taft’s Cornhill Coffee House. 

Months later, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which gave authorities the power to go into free states and arrest Black Americans who had escaped slavery. 

A slave catcher named John Caphart arrived in Boston, with papers for Minkins. While serving breakfast at the coffee house, federal authorities arrested Minkins. 

Several local lawyers, including Robert Morris, volunteered to represent him. Three days later, a group of abolitionists, led by African-American abolitionist Lewis Hayden, broke into the Boston courthouse and rescued a surprised Minkins. 

“The rescuers headed north along Court Street, 200 or more following like the tail of a comet,” author Gary Collison wrote. They guided him across the Charles River to the Cambridge home of the Rev. Joseph C. Lovejoy, whose brother, Elijah, had been lynched by a pro-slavery mob in Illinois in 1837. 

Another Black leader, John J. Smith, helped Minkins get a wagon with horses, and from Cambridge, Hayden, Smith and Minkins traveled to Concord, where Minkins stayed with the Bigelow family, which guided him to the Underground Railroad, making his way to Montreal, spending the rest of his life in Canada as a free man. 

Abolitionists cheered his escape, and President Millard Fillmore fumed. Morris, Hayden and others were charged, but sympathetic juries acquitted them. Meanwhile in Montreal, Minkins met fellow fugitives, married, had four children and continued to work as a waiter before operating his own restaurants. 

He ended his career running a barbershop before dying in 1875. A play performed in Boston in 2016 told the dramatic story of his escape.

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