The youngest of 13 children, Anthony Burns was born May 31, 1834 into slavery; his family was owned by the Suttle family of Virginia. His mother married three times; Burns’s father was her third husband. Burns’s father died when his last child was very young.
A few years later their owner, John Suttle, died leaving his wife with financial problems which prompted her to sell five of Burns’s siblings. To gain more income, she hired out the remaining siblings including Anthony. Burns performed a variety of jobs including personal servant, sawmill worker and tavern employee. He also was given the responsibility of managing four other slaves owned by Mrs. Suttle; he was allowed this freedom as long as he paid his master a fee from his earnings.
In March of 1854, Burns escaped from his master in Virginia and boarded a ship to Boston. When he arrived in Boston he found employment with a clothing store operated by Lewis Hayden, an abolitionist.
His freedom was short-lived, however. On May 24, 1854, Burns was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act, a component of the Compromise of 1850. This controversial federal law allowed owners to reclaim escaped slaves by presenting proof of ownership.
In support of Burns, many black and white Boston abolitionists who opposed the Fugitive Slave Act seized on the Burns arrest as a way to demonstrate their disapproval of the federal statute. On May 26, 1854, Lewis Hayden and Worcester clergyman Thomas W. Higginson led the abolitionists in an attack on the Suffolk County Courthouse in a futile attempt to free Burns. Their action resulted in the death of one marshal and the arrest of 13 people.
The next day, Burns was sent to trial where he was represented by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., a prominent white Boston attorney who stepped forward to defend him without charge, and African American attorney Robert Morris. Despite their spirited defense, Judge Edward G. Loring ruled in favor of Suttle, citing the Fugitive Slave Act.
To ensure the judge’s order to return Burns to Virginia slavery, about 2,000 federal soldiers were assigned on June 2, 1854 to escort Burns to a Boston dock and waiting ship. Anthony Burns, surrounded by soldiers, was marched through an angry crowd of abolitionists on the way to the harbor. There he was placed on the ship and returned to Virginia.
Boston abolitionists, however, did not give up on liberating Burns from slavery. Boston Baptist preacher Leonard A. Grimes led supporters in raising money to purchase Burns’s freedom. On February 22, 1855 their efforts succeeded and Burns returned to Massachusetts a free man.
Burns later attended Oberlin College in Ohio and then spent time as a pastor of a black Baptist church in Indianapolis. Later he moved to Canada where he became the pastor of St. Catharine’s Ontario Baptist Church. On July 17, 1862, Burns died in Ontario at the age of 28.