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"We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, compromise Union Whigs, & waked up stark mad Abolitionists." - Amos Adams Lawrence, on the Anthony Burns affair, 1854
Many of the slaves who utilized the Underground Railroad made it safely to freedom and never looked back on the world of bondage left behind. Anthony Burns is a unique individual whose journey along the Underground Railroad carried him out of slavery, back into it under Federal law, and then out of it again for good.
Burns, born into slavery in Stafford, Virginia in 1834, was no stranger to breaking the law. He served as a preacher at the Falmouth Union Church in Falmouth, Virginia, even though it was illegal for African Americans to be preachers. In early 1854, Burns ran away from his master and made his way to freedom in Boston. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, citizens of free states were required by Federal law to aid in the recovery of escaped slaves by their masters. This made Burns a wanted man despite having made it to Massachusetts, where slavery had been outlawed in the 1780s.
Burns was captured in May 1854 and tried under the Fugitive Slave Act in a highly publicized trial. He was found guilty and sent back to Virginia to resume his life of bondage. Boston abolitionists were determined to ensure that Burns lived the rest of his life as a free man. They raised the funds to purchase him from his master and set him free in 1855. Burns returned to Boston and received an education at Oberlin College in Ohio.
All along, Anthony Burns considered himself a member in good standing of the Baptist congregation at the Falmouth Union Church in Virginia, which was shared by Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians. In July 1855, as a newly freed man, he asked the church for a "letter of dismission in fellowship and recommendation to another church" near Oberlin College. Unfortunately, Burns' high profile past precluded him from receiving the letter he so desired. Having run away and refused to return voluntarily to his master, the church determined that Burns disobeyed "the laws of God and man" and was considered "a fugitive from labor." Even though Burns was no longer considered a runaway slave and was legally a free man, the church body decided unanimously that he be "excommunicated from this communion and fellowship." To add insult to injury, Burns was notified of the decision by receiving a copy of the Front Royal Gazette in which the decision had been published.
Burns moved to St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada in 1860, which had a large population of fugitive slaves. There, he became pastor at Zion Baptist Church. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 28 on July 17, 1862, right in the middle of the Civil War and less than six months before President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
The Falmouth Union Church was used by Union soldiers as barracks and a field hospital numerous times during the Civil War. It was closed in 1935, damaged by a storm in 1950, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. All that remains today is the narthex.
T. Logan M. is a Museum Technician at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and is a Trustee of the Union Church Historic Site and President of the Union Church Preservation Project. More on the Union Church can be found at http://www.falmouthunionchurch.org.
1855 engraving depicting Burns' journey to freedom
Library of Congress
Falmouth Union Church Historic Site
Photograph by David Perrussel