Fighting for Freedom: Lewis Hayden and the Underground Railroad


(dogs barking) (dramatic music) (dogs barking) (dramatic music) (knocking and door opens) [Male Guest]
A friend of a friend sent me. [Gentleman] Come in, quickly! It’s alright You’re safe here. [Lewis Hayden Voiceover]
I belonged to the Reverend Adam Rankin, in Lexington, Kentucky. My master was a minister, yet he sold my mother. He sold all my brothers and sisters at auction. He swapped me for
a pair of horses. [Narrator]
From the time of its inception, America was deeply rooted in a system of slavery. The right to own slaves was enshrined in the Constitution and was a bedrock of the American economy in both the South and North. Yet despite the dangers to themselves and their families, many enslaved people tried to escape. Some on their own, and some with the help of a secret network. Lewis Hayden was born
enslaved in 1811. He would be sold three times. Owned by a Reverend, a clock peddler, and leased out to others. As a young man, he married an enslaved woman named Esther Harvey. They had two sons. One who died in infancy. Esther and their surviving son were also soon sold away and Lewis never saw them again. [Lewis Voiceover]
I have one child who is sold nobody knows where, and that I never can bear to think of. [Narrator]
In 1840, at age 29, Lewis was sold to a cruel slaveholder who demanded long days and was quick with his whip. During that time, using a bible and discarded newspapers, Lewis taught himself to read. He also remarried, having met and fallen in love with an enslaved woman named Harriet Bell. She lived with her son at her owner’s home, where she worked as a housekeeper and child nurse. Lewis looked after the boy, Joseph, as if he where his own child. But every moment was shadowed by the fear that they could be torn apart at a moment’s notice. [Lewis Voiceover]
The trader was all around, the slave-pen at hand, and we did not know what time any of us might be in it. When a friend was carried off, why it was the same as death. [Narrator]
Like so many other enslaved people, Lewis yearned to escape. But he would not leave without his wife and son. Slaveholders would go to great lengths to recover their valuable property, often hiring slave catchers – well-armed and ruthless
bounty hunters. The consequences of being caught were horrific. (bell tolling) In 1844, when Lewis was 33, he was leased to the owners of the Phoenix Hotel in Lexington. It was there Lewis met a woman named Delia Webster who introduced him to her friend, Calvin Fairbank. She was a schoolteacher from Vermont, and he was a ministerial student from Oberlin College in Ohio, a center of anti-slavery activity. As they would come to reveal to Lewis, Calvin and Delia were actually operatives on the Underground Railroad and Calvin had arrived in Lexington on a mission that would offer Lewis
his chance for escape. Calvin asked Lewis, “Why do
you want your freedom?” To which Lewis replied, “Because I am a man.” On the evening of Saturday, September 28, 1844, Lewis helped Harriet and Joseph steal away from their slave owner’s house. They met Calvin, Delia, and Israel, the driver, an enslaved man who had been hired out to Calvin with a hackney. Together they took their first, dangerous steps to freedom. [Calvin]
Let’s go. [Narrator]
The group traveled as inconspicuously as they could through Kentucky. (dramatic music building) At dawn the Haydens finally
reached the Ohio River, the borderland between slavery and freedom. Crossing into Ohio, a free state, Calvin left the Haydens in Red Oak, a bedrock of abolitionist activity. The Haydens worked their way north to Sandusky, Ohio. They often moved under the cover of darkness. If they were lucky, their next stop would be arranged in advance, where a friendly face would feed and shelter them. Other times, they just made their way north without knowing where they would next find safety. Like many freedom seekers, the Haydens were on their way to Canada, where slavery had been abolished a decade earlier in 1834. Yet others escaped to the south and some even crossed oceans to get away. The Underground Railroad was as old as slavery in America itself. As slavery grew in the 19th century, the means of helping people
escape grew more organized. By the 1830s, a decentralized network had evolved. As steam engines emerged around the same time, the escape routes were dubbed, “The Underground Railroad.” Yet as much as it was a network, the Underground Railroad was a movement shaped by abolitionists, social activists, former slaves and ordinary people who were simply moved to help those who stood before them in need. They organized through family networks, community institutions, and local churches. Molly Horniblow was a free black woman who helped her enslaved granddaughter,
Harriet Ann Jacobs, hide in her attic storeroom for seven years before she escaped north by boat. Levi Coffin, a Quaker, purportedly assisted more than 3,000 slaves. And the legendary Harriet Tubman, who escaped from bondage herself and then made 13 trips back to Maryland, where she led 70 others out of slavery. Yet the engine that drove the Underground Railroad was the indomitable will of the thousands of enslaved men and women who sought freedom. Just before the Haydens crossed into Canada, they received word that Calvin Fairbank and Delia Webster had been caught as they returned to Lexington. For assisting with the Haydens’ escape, Israel, the driver, was whipped and tortured until he revealed the escape route. Calvin was sentenced to 15 years. Five for each slave he helped escape. The Haydens’ freedom had come at a terrible price. Safely in Canada, Lewis sent a letter to his former owner. [Lewis Voiceover]
Sir, you have already discovered me absent. I never was a great friend to the institution of robbing and crushing slavery. I have concluded for the present to try freedom. To be my own master, so farewell. [Narrator]
Lewis, Harriet, and Joseph lived in Canada for six months. But it was a restless freedom. Determined to join the struggle to end slavery, they moved to Detroit but it was not long before Lewis was drawn to the epicenter of the abolitionist movement, and home to one of the nation’s most dynamic free black communities: Boston, Massachusetts. By 1848 the Haydens had opened a successful clothing store and began sheltering others escaping from slavery. Lewis had not forgotten Calvin Fairbank who, after four years, still languished in a Kentucky prison. Lewis negotiated a payoff with his former owner who had pressed charges against Calvin. From his network in Boston Lewis raised the money to secure Calvin’s release. It would be a small victory for Lewis in the face of a looming battle. In 1850, Congress passed the “Fugitive Slave Law,” making it easier for slave catchers to hunt people in free states and return them to slavery. The architect of the law was Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, the very same man who had sold away Hayden’s first wife and son. The new law required all citizens to assist in the capture of a “suspected” slave. Assisting a fugitive would be punished with a fine of one thousand dollars and six months in prison. As part of the payment that freed Calvin Fairbank, Lewis had also purchased his own freedom but Harriet and Joseph were still fugitives and faced being sent back into slavery. In defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law, and despite the risk to his family, Lewis helped plan and execute a series of daring rescue missions, directly challenging the federal government. Only a few months after passage of the law, Shadrach Minkins, a freedom seeker, was arrested by slave catchers and held captive in the Boston courthouse. Lewis led black abolitionists as they stormed the courthouse. Rescuing Minkins and delivering him to freedom in Canada. All the while, Lewis and Harriet continued sheltering people fleeing slavery. Lewis was known to keep barrels of gunpowder in his basement and on one occasion threatened slave catchers he would drop a torch onto the barrels if they did not walk away. The Hayden’s home became known as the “Temple of Refuge”: the most important stop on the Underground Railroad in Boston. When the Civil War began, Lewis fought for the right for African Americans to serve in the Union army and helped recruit troops for the 54th Regiment: the first African Americans enlisted in the North. With the Northern victory in the Civil War, over two and a half centuries of legalized slavery came to a close. Lewis Hayden was 54 years old. [Lewis Voiceover]
Although the dark and damning curse of slavery is disappearing, its hissing may still be heard. [Narrator]
Like so many others involved in the Underground Railroad, Lewis’ focus shifted to the pursuit of equality. In 1873, Lewis was one of the
first African Americans elected to the Massachusetts state legislature, and until his death in 1889 he remained a leader in the fight for freedom. (music) By some accounts,
the Underground Railroad helped well over 100,000 enslaved men, women and children escape servitude. It was America’s first Civil Rights Movement. [Music] Day by day I work the line Every minute overtime Fingers nimble, fingers quick My fingers bleed to make you rich You can take my body You can take my bones You can take my blood But not my soul You can take my body You can take my bones You can take my blood
But not my soul.

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