Heritage Moments: Fugitive slave fights for a family's freedom

Nov 23, 2015

In his 1847 memoir, “Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave,” the abolitionist William Wells Brown recalled the years he spent in Buffalo as a worker on lake boats. He remembered one dramatic episode from his Buffalo years in gripping detail.

 

In the autumn of 1835, the city’s small black community became alarmed by the presence of Bacon Tate, a slaveholder from Tennessee, at the Eagle Tavern, Buffalo’s best hotel.* Tate was searching for fugitive slaves from his state, in particular the Stanfords, a husband and wife who had escaped to St. Catharines in Upper Canada. Over the next few days the incredible events unfolded.

Tate sent to St. Catharines four men, who abducted the Stanfords and their six-week-old child from their home in the dead of night, and took them back to Buffalo. The next morning, the Stanfords’ neighbors found the family missing and followed wagon tracks to the Canadian landing of the Black Rock ferry. One crossed the river and alerted the black community on the American side.

“The colored people of Buffalo are noted for their promptness in giving aid to the fugitive slave,” Brown wrote, and they swung into action.

Brown and several other black men immediately hired horses and set out in pursuit of the kidnappers, who were gone from the Eagle Tavern. Half took the road to Erie, Pa. The other half, including Brown, took the road to Hamburg – where they found the carriage they were looking for, parked outside a public house.

The pursuers surrounded the house and found the Stanfords inside, bound, gagged and bloodied. The party freed them and accompanied them back to the Black Rock ferry** – only to find that Tate had convinced the Erie County sheriff and a posse of 60 to 70 drawn largely from canal workers to recapture the stolen “property.” Stanfords’ black defenders, who numbered about 50, armed themselves with clubs, pistols and knives. A dangerous confrontation loomed.

The two sides clashed on the road to the ferry. At one point a white lawyer joined the black defenders and informed them that if an officer did not have a warrant, “he has no right to take you; knock him down” -- advice that was followed repeatedly. The black party made slow progress during two hours of serious fighting -- one white man later died of injuries – and finally put the family aboard the ferry. The Stanfords rejoiced upon landing in Canada.

Back on the American shore, their black defenders gave three cheers and surrendered to arrest. Twenty-five of them, including Brown, were held for trial and wound up being fined from $5 to $50. Tate fled Buffalo. Brown became a leading anti-slavery lecturer and spokesmen for abolition, first in Western New York, later nationally. But he always remembered that crazy, violent day in 1835 as “one of the most fearful fights for human freedom that I have ever witnessed.”

* In his memoir Brown says the events took place in 1836, but a report of the incident appeared in a Buffalo newspaper, The Daily Commercial Advertiser, of July 13, 1835 (“Buffalo Fugitive Slave Case and Riot”); it is probable that Brown misremembered the year.

** The ferry landing was located on Bird Island at the foot of Ferry Street, as confirmed by recent archeological research

Cast (in order of appearance)

Sheriff: James Toback
William Wells Brown at 20: Xavier Harris
Posse Member: Jeff Z. Klein
Brown Companion: Shameed Wright
Narrator: Susan Banks
Black Rock Ferryman: Richard Hummert
Mrs. Stanford: Vernia Garvin
William Wells Brown at 34: Xavier Harris

Sound recording: Micheal Peters and Connor De Junco (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Post-production: Kim Ferullo (Chameleon Communications, 510 Franklin St., Buffalo)
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)
Jesse Tiebor (Casting Hall Productions, 2014-15 academic year; Buffalo State Theater Dept.)
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein

Special thanks to:
Brian McDermott, WBNY general manager, 2014-15 academic year
Connor De Junco, WBNY production director, 2014-15 academic year
Anthony Chase, assistant dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Buffalo State
Ronald Smith, professor, and Thomas McCray, assistant professor, Buffalo State Communication Dept.