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Portrait of Lewis Hayden
Portrait of "conductor" Lewis Hayden
Photograph courtesy of Boston African American NHS, NPS Photo.
The debate in Congress in 1819 and 1820 over whether Missouri should enter the Union as a slave or free state made it clear to the entire nation that the slavery issue was not going to simply evaporate in the American republic. For free blacks, the formation of the national American Colonization Society persuaded them to organize for the abolition of slavery rather than act individually. The Colonization Society wanted federal government funds to pay the costs of settling free blacks in an African colony they founded and called Liberia. The threat to free African Americans that this appeared to represent called for a more organized black response and for more white allies. The era of immediate abolitionism is generally acknowledged to have begun on January 1, 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison first published his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.

The abolitionists were divided over strategy and tactics, but they were very active and very visible. Many of them were part of the organized Underground Railroad that flourished between 1830 and 1861. Not all abolitionists favored aiding fugitive slaves, and some believed that money and energy should go to political action. Even those who were not abolitionists might be willing to help when they encountered a fugitive, or they might not. It was very difficult for fugitives to know who could be trusted.

Southerners were outraged that escaping slaves received assistance from so many sources and that they lived and worked in the North and Canada. As a part of the Compromise of 1850, a new Fugitive Slave Act was passed that made it both possible and profitable to hire slave catchers to find and arrest runaways. This was a disaster for the free black communities of the North, especially since the slave catchers often kidnapped legally-free blacks as well as fugitives. But these seizures and kidnappings brought the brutality of slavery into the North and persuaded many more people to assist fugitives. Vigilance Committees acted as contact points for runaways and watched out vigilantly for the rights of northern free blacks. They worked together with local abolition societies, African American churches and a variety of individuals to help fugitives move further on or to find them homes and work. Those who went to Canada in the mid-nineteenth century went primarily to what was then called Canada West, now Ontario.

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