February 15th 1851, Black abolitionists broke into a Boston courthouse and rescued Shadrach Minkins, a fugitive slave. Born in Norfolk in 1800, Minkins was affected by the Nat Turner rebellion and the death of his owners Thomas and Ann Glenn.

Minkins escaped north to Boston Massachusetts in 1850. A year later working as a waiter serving breakfast at a coffeehouse in Boston history caught up with him. Arrested, he was the first runaway to be detained in New England under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Minkins became a catalyst of one of the most dramatic episodes of rebellion and legal wrangling before the Civil War.

After his daring courthouse rescue he escaped to Canada and with other African American expatriates in Montreal created the city’s first Black community. Minkins died in 1875, without a country but a free man.

On Saturday morning, February 15, 1851, two officers posing as customers at Taft’s Cornhill Coffee House seized the waiter Shadrach Minkins, a “stout, copper-colored man,” who had escaped from slavery in Virginia and settled in Boston. Minkins was taken to the nearby courthouse for a hearing. Lawyers Robert Morris, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Ellis Gray Loring and Samuel E. Sewall offered their services as Minkins’ counsel. They immediately filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme Judicial Court seeking Minkins’ release from custody.

Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of
Massachusetts, refused to consider the defense’s habeas corpus petition. Later, a crowd of black and white abolitionists entered the courthouse, overcame armed guards and forced their way into the courtroom.
In a chaotic struggle, black abolitionists arrested Minkins from his court officers, carried him off and temporarily hid him in a Beacon Hill attic. From there, Boston black leaders Lewis Hayden, John J. Smith and others helped Minkins escape from Massachusetts, and he eventually found his way to Canada on the Underground Railroad. On an order from President Millard Fillmore, nine abolitionists, including Robert Morris, were indicted. Charges against some were dismissed, while others, including Morris and Hayden, faced a jury in court. Utimately, each was aquitted.


The Escape From Norfolk Virginia And Slavery of Shadrach Minkins

The son of an enslaved man named David and an unnamed mother, Minkins was born into slavery in Norfolk and answered to the name Sherwood until he was a young man. Although his birth year is unknown, in 1861 he reported his age as forty-seven, meaning he may have been born about 1814. Minkins and his parents were owned by Thomas Glenn, a native of New Kent County who operated the Eagle Tavern in Market Square, a busy commercial area of Norfolk.

Glenn died on July 14, 1832, followed by his wife, Ann Glenn, on December 28, 1836. The estate, including eight slaves, was divided equally among the couple’s five underage children. Until the children reached maturity, the property was managed by Elijah P. Goodridge, a Norfolk businessman who hired out the slaves. Records for 1838 indicate that Minkins, then still called Sherwood, was hired to R. S. Hutchings and Company, a grocery that mainly sold liquor and was located near the Eagle Tavern. By 1849, Martha Hutchings, the founder’s widow, owned Minkins outright. At that time, her business was preparing to default on its loans, and on July 23, 1849, a notice appeared in the Norfolk and Portsmouth Herald announcing the public sale of a “Negro Man Shadrach.”

John A. Higgins, of Norfolk, purchased Minkins that day and may have hired him out until October. In November 1849, Higgins sold Minkins to his father-in-law, John DeBree, a career naval officer from New Jersey. The low purchase price of $300 suggests that the balance of Minkins’s worth may have gone toward a debt owed by Higgins to DeBree. Minkins worked as a house servant in the DeBree home at 117 East Main Street, Norfolk, near Market Square.

On May 3, 1850, Minkins escaped Norfolk. He probably left by sea, as ships regularly steamed to Boston, either directly or via Baltimore. It is not known whether he had the assistance of the captain or crew, but evidence suggests he may have left with at least one other slave. In March 1856, Rebecca Jones, a Norfolk slave who escaped to Boston by ship, told abolitionists that her husband had escaped in 1850 “in company with the noted fugitive, ‘Shadrach.'”

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These two Lawyers and black Abolitionist assisted in the escape of Shadrach Minkins


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