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In 1854, Anthony Burns — not quite twenty years old — escaped from the Commonwealth of Virginia, where he was enslaved, to freedom in Boston.
At least that was his intention.
When we think of escaping enslavement from our modern vantage point, the scenario might seem simple: The North was the goal that, once reached, meant freedom. Formerly enslaved activists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman had blazed a trail that — though harrowing — seemed a straightforward track to follow. If one could make it through the perilous journey, slave catchers and ravenous dogs at their heels; if one could keep from being captured and taken back to their enslaver to be whipped, maimed, or sold even deeper South as recompense; if one could just cross the Mason-Dixon Line — one could be free.
Legislatively, though, the story was never that simple, and things took a massive shift with passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The upper states of the South felt that they were hemorrhaging enslaved laborers and that the North was not taking this loss of property seriously enough. So in a swath of new legislation that arrived with the acquisition of new territories, James M. Mason introduced new measures to force the North to participate in the capture and return of fugitives from the South.
If that sounds like a wave of political jargon, it’s because the men in power were consummate politicians. They debated over the realities of slavery as a matter of dollars and cents, unity and disharmony, political bargaining chips or partisan power moves.
William J. Watkins and Charlotte Forten, like many others, saw through the political conversation. And despite a lack of political power, they determined the issue at hand was not above their pay grade. The former was a pastor who had spent his life providing affordable education for Black children of the North — both born free and enslaved alike. Watkins would later raise Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a renowned activist, poet, and orator who would credit her rigorous classical education for much of her success. Watkins was also a spitfire when it came to wielding his pen. And in 1854, when Anthony Burns became the test case for how the Fugitive Slave Act would play out in a free state like Massachusetts, Watkins spilled ink as sharp as any sword:
Slavery is murder in the highest degree. Every slaveholder is a murderer, a wholesale murderer. Those who apologise for them are worse than murderers. If one of these midnight and noonday assassins were to rush into the house of a white man, and strive to bind him hand and foot, and tear God’s image from his brow, and be shot in the attempt, no one would characterize that act as murder. Not at all. It would be considered an act of righteous retribution. The man who sent a bullet through the tyrant’s heart would be almost extravagantly lauded. This would be done, we remark, if the man to be enslaved, or murdered, which is the same thing, were a white man. Now take the following case. A colored man is living quietly in Boston, one mile from the Bunker Hill Monument. He is a free man, for God created him. He stamped his image upon him. Slavery has well nigh murdered him.
This application of the imago Dei is a hallmark of the abolitionist movement.
Note Rev. Watkins’ use of the word murder — it might have sounded dramatic to the desensitized ears of the day, who were used to the time-honored reality of slavery. But Watkins’ point is clear: If mankind is made in the image of God, and we disrespect that image by dehumanizing man, then we are participating in a kind of murder.
Forget the desensitized ears of the day — Watkins’ words probably sound theatrical today. We have forgotten the intense human rights debate that American chattel slavery represented for the church. We have forgotten because we fear the church’s widespread complicity in the slave trade and institution it enabled. We have forgotten because we find comfort in myths of slavery’s humaneness, or because we would rather view enslavement as a provincial oddity — because we would rather see the naming of that brutality as anachronistic rather than a moral imperative regardless of the day and age.
Because of the 1850 legislation, Anthony Burns was, in fact, remanded to Virginia, despite efforts on behalf of Watkins and others to procure his freedom. Just 19 when he was put on a boat back to Virginia, bound in chains, Burns became a flashpoint for the freedom struggle of the North.
Seventeen-year-old Charlotte Forten was so impacted by Burns’ recapture that she wrote about it in one of the first entries of her journal that would span the next 30 years of her life. She was the daughter and granddaughter of anti-slavery activists, a woman who, in less than ten years, would find herself in the heart of the South teaching the formerly enslaved. Her entry reads:
To-day Massachusetts has again been disgraced; again she has showed her submission to the Slave Power; and Oh! With what deep sorrow do we think of what will doubtless be the fate of that poor man, when he is again consigned to the hours of slavery. With what scorn must that government be regarded which cowardly assembles thousands of soldiers to satisfy the demands of slaveholders; to deprive of his freedom a man, created in God’s own image, whose sole offense is the color of his skin! And if resistance is offered to this outrage, these soldiers are to shoot down American citizens without mercy; and this by express orders of a government which proudly boasts of being the freest in the world; this on the very soil where the Revolution of 1776 began; in sight of the battlefield, where thousands of brave men fought and died in opposing British tyranny, which was nothing compared with the American oppression of today.
Again, the language of the imago Dei — the image of God — proves a flashpoint for conscientious Christian activism. The implications of the fact that God created mankind in his own image are many, but Watkins and Forten prove its use in lament and the search for justice amid the period of American slavery.
There are many stories about how the doctrine of imago Dei informed the abolitionist movement. To tell these stories is to not only laud the brave men and women who stood against the disrespect of God’s image in their time — but also to spur us to bravery as we defend the imago Dei in the present day.