By Andy O’Brien 

On October 8, 1850, African American residents of Portland held an emergency meeting at the Abyssinian Meeting House. Weeks earlier, politicians in Congress had passed the infamous Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required people fleeing bondage to be returned to their white “owners,” even if the people who had fled were then living in a free state like Maine. 

The law made the federal government responsible for finding and returning freedom seekers and mandated state and local authorities to assist in their capture. The law stripped African Americans of their right to a trial by jury when they were arrested. And it even imposed a fine of up $1,000 and up to six months in prison to anyone “who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent” the capture of a fugitive slave. 

The law infuriated white Northerners, who were now forced by federal law to support the institution of slavery, which they considered immoral, through their taxes. The law also struck terror into free Black communities in the North. Many primarily Black villages where formerly enslaved people had settled emptied out as they fled to Canada to avoid slave catchers. Even legally free Black Northerners feared being kidnapped by someone eager to make some quick cash. Soon, formerly enslaved people throughout New England began fleeing further north. 

Reverend Amos Noë Freeman – the first full-time Black pastor of the Abyssinian – called the emergency meeting. The reportedly “spirited” gathering included impassioned speeches. 

“The meeting was the most enthusiastic I ever attended in Portland,” reported one correspondent, who went by the initial “F.” “The speakers were frequently interrupted by bursts of applause. The colored people are determined to resist, to a man – and woman, too – any attempt to take a fellow-being back to bondage. Should the slaveholder come hither for that purpose, he will find the colored people are prepared to give him a warm reception. Not a man is to be taken from Portland. Our motto is Liberty or Death!” 

Two days after the meeting, the group formed a 10-member “Committee of Vigilance” to aid and protect African American refugees fleeing slavery. The committee was composed of all Black men including longtime activist Reuben Ruby; laborer Henry Daniels; mariner Benjamin D. Barnett and his brother, mariner Charles F. Barnett; barber Jacob C. Dickson; coach driver Alexander Stevenson; mariner William Hammett; shoemaker Enoch A. Burke; mariner George Potter; and William Brown. 

In forming the committee, the men passed a resolution pledging to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter and assistance to the fugitive from American slavery,” and to “resist unto death any and every effort to take from this city, for the purpose of enslaving him, any person to whom we are united by the ties of common brotherhood.” The group noted that their forefathers had “fought, bled, and died” in the American Revolution. They resolved that they were once again prepared to face violence to fight for liberty and justice. 

Freeman and the Vigilance Committee worked with abolitionists in Boston to hide fugitive slaves, disguise them, and help them escape to safety. Committee men would act as bodyguards to take the passengers to outgoing ships to Canada, Europe, or even the West Indies, where slavery had been abolished. 

According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the group would wait until the last moment and, just as the ship’s gangplank was about to be pulled in, they would make a rush for the ship and put the passenger safely aboard. As mentioned in the February column, the Vigilance Committee assisted with the escape of a fugitive slave who had stowed away on the Albion Cooper, which was docked in Portland harbor in 1857. 

Two of the most famous Underground Railroad passengers who came through Portland were Ellen and William Craft, who had made a dramatic escape from slavery in Georgia to freedom in Boston in 1848. Ellen was light skinned, so she disguised herself as white while her husband posed as a slave. As William Craft recounts in his book Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, the couple made the decision to flee to Portland after the Fugitive Slave Act passed.  

Many years later, Elizabeth Thomas of Portland remembered the day abolitionist Lydia Dennett brought the Crafts to stay with her family on India Street. “The woman was dressed as a man, and wore a tall silk hat such as were worn by a valet to a gentleman in those days. They were hungry and tired as well as being badly frightened when they reached Portland, and Mrs. Dennett at once sent them to our house.” A few days later, the Crafts caught a steam ship to Nova Scotia and eventually England.