This week’s honoree is Lewis Hayden, who died this week in 1889. Hayden is one of many influential black abolitionists whose names have largely been lost to mainstream history.
Hayden’s early life was marked by both slavery – he was born a slave in 1811, in Lexington Kentucky – and by encounters with two crucial figures in early American history: The Marquis de Lafayette, who Hayden recalls seeing as a boy as Lafayette toured his Kentucky plantation, an encounter which inspired him to try to attain equality and freedom; and Henry Clay, the noted US Senator, who purchased Hayden and his wife, and who later sold his wife and child south, separating them permanently from him. Hayden escaped slavery with his second wife Harriet in the 1840s, and the pair moved to Boston to join in the abolitionist fight.
In Boston, Hayden was an active participant in the struggle against the Fugiive Slave Act of the 1850s. Hayden was instrumental in the escape from custody of fugitive Shadrach Minkins, and routinely hid fugitives in his Beacon Hill home. He was engaged in local politics as well, connected with both white and black power brokers in the city. During the Civil War, he helped raise black troops for the Uniion cause; after it he ran for and was elected to a seat in the Massachusetts State Legislature. He ended his days fighting for recognition for Boston’s black community; only a year before his death in 1889, he succeeded in having erected a statue to black Revolutionary hero Crispus Attucks, the first to die in the 1770 Boston Massacre.