Sunday, August 25 marks the 400th anniversary of the first landing of enslaved Africans in the English colonies of North America. This day will be commemorated as a day of healing and reconciliation marked by the ringing of bells across the country. The Bostonian Society will be participating with the ringing of bells inside the Old State House, prior to the 3PM performance of The Petition. We do have several bells in its collection, one of which has ties to this history.
Currently on view in the Boston Massacre room on the second floor of Old State House, this bell (on loan from the City of Boston) was cast in bronze in 1773 likely by Thomas Bilbie, as evidenced by the makers mark inscribed on it – “T.B. 1773.” The Bilbie family were bell founders (those who mold and produce bells) and clockmakers based in Chew Stoke, Somerset and at Cullompton, Devon in south-west England from the late 17th century to the early 19th century. The bell was hung in the cupola of the brick Suffolk County Court House on Queen Street (now Court Street) when that building was erected around 1773. It remained there until the building was demolished in 1836 to make room for its successor, the “Old Court House”. The bell was placed on the Old Court House building when it was built in 1837 (and torn down in 1909), and remained there for some years. It is believed that it was last rung at the time of the rendition (under the Fugitive Slave Act) of Anthony Burns in 1854.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a contested law that gave Southern slaveholders the power to intervene in Northern cities and take alleged fugitive slaves back into their custody. Boston abolitionists strove to maintain the freedom of fugitive slaves, sometimes fighting violently to achieve those ends.
Anthony Burns left Virginia to escape enslavement, but was captured in Boston on May 24, 1854 by the fugitive slave catcher Asa Butman. Abolitionists in the city were outraged and sought to free him. On the evening of May 26, the rescue attempt turned violent, leaving one dead and several arrested, and Burns still in jail. On June 2, 1854, Anthony Burns was handcuffed and escorted down the wharf in Boston to be shipped back to slavery in Alexandria, Virginia. Burns was later freed in February of 1855 as Boston abolitionists were able to buy his freedom.
You can find out more about Anthony Burns and the efforts to rescue him here.
Learn more about the Nationwide Bell Ringing Ceremony here.