America is replete with the racist and oppressive reminders of the institution of slavery. One such hallmark is that on this date in 1793, Congress passed the first law declaring escaped slaves to be brought back to their masters by harsh means with the Fugitive Slave Act. Northern and Southern states were bound to the law, although the North relaxed the strict measures and even allowed slaves seeking freedom a fair trial.
The main portion of the law stated:
No person held to service of labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such labor or service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.
One of the most-insidious pieces of language in the law stated that children born to slaves were bound for life to their owners and that kept them under risk for recapture no matter where they escaped to.
Northerners, angered by the law, were instrumental in passing countering legal actions that barred authorities in their respective states to assist in the capture of an escaped slave.
But even with the protection of judges and authority figures in the North, many slaves continued to be seized as rounding up escapees became a lucrative business.
Southern states bristled at the North’s boldness and defiance of the law, thus sparking a stricter law known as the “Compromise Of 1850.” The law was severe as slaves were barred from representing themselves at trial, but in a counter to the compromise, the “Underground Railroad” was born and thrived thus giving way for escaped slaves to head to the North and further to Canada. Former slaves like Harriet Tubman bonded with abolitionists and Quakers who deemed the practice of slavery inhumane.
As evidenced by the dawn of the 19th century and beyond, African Americans withstood the brutal assault on their humanity, but the pain and memory of America’s shameful past has stood the test of time as well.