Buffalo's Antebellum African American Community and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

Article excerpt

On September 18, 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Law, the most controversial element of the Compromise of 1850. This law has been characterized as "one of the most shameful legislative measures in American history." (2) The law, which shored up the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, greatly expanded federal judicial authority and directed federal authorities to adopt a more direct role in guaranteeing the security of slavery. It entrusted entirely to federal officials apprehension and repatriation of fugitive slaves. An expanded number of United States Commissioners based in cities throughout the country were authorized to issue warrants for the arrest of alleged fugitive slaves. It was the Commissioners who determined the status of apprehended African Americans, and if prisoners were found to be slaves, rather than free persons, the Commissioners' fees were greater. Alleged fugitives were denied a trial by jury, denied the right to speak on their own behalf, and no provision was made for legal counsel. The law further provided for a $1,000 fine and up to six months imprisonment for citizens who aided in the concealment of fugitive slaves. Clearly, every provision of the law was arranged for the benefit of the slaveholder. (3) The Fugitive Slave Law threatened both free and fugitive African Americans. Fugitives faced the prospect of apprehension and return to the slave south. Free African Americans could be victimized by false accusation.

One would expect the Fugitive Slave Law to impact heavily on Buffalo, NY. The city, positioned where Lake Erie flows into the Niagara River and the western terminus of the Erie Canal, was the United States' premier Great Lakes port. Buffalo was a major transshipment center between the East and West. Buffalo had a viable African American community because of the availability of lake, canal, and dock jobs. Furthermore, its proximity to slave free Canada (a few hundred yards across the swift Niagara River) made Buffalo a major site on the Underground Railroad. With a growing economy and immediacy to Canada, Buffalo became an especially attractive haven for free and fugitive African Americans. Professional slave catchers kept an eye on Buffalo and sometimes visited the city. There would almost certainly be "fugitive" apprehensions and court proceedings in Buffalo under the new Fugitive Slave Law. Indeed within a year of the law's passage, three fugitive slave cases arose in Buffalo. In each case the alleged fugitives were remanded to slavery but one was saved from this fate.

Passage of the Fugitive Slave Law and the subsequent apprehension cases did have an important impact on Buffalo's African American community, but contrary to some historians claims there was no large-scale emigration to Canada. Buffalo's pre-Fugitive Slave Law African American community was active in opposing slavery and calling for local integration and civil rights. After passage of the bill, the community publicly demonstrated against the Law and took actions to save arrested fugitives. Rather then an exodus to Canada, national events associated with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law and local issues led to political disaffection of the African American leaders. Despair combined with the loss of some key activists changed the focus of community activity in Buffalo during the 1850s.

By 1850 the Buffalo population had increased to 42,261. The city's white population had almost tripled, in part, due to Irish and German immigration. The African American population of antebellum Buffalo grew more slowly, reaching 675 people in 1850. (See Table 1) Thus by mid century, African Americans constituted only 1.6% of Buffalo's total population. (4)

Both historians and contemporaries have noted the exodus of African Americans from various northern cities after passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. The reports of the number of African Americans who migrated to Canada immediately before or after the law's passage have been used to estimate both the number of fugitives the north harbored and to determine the impact of the Fugitive Slave Law. …