From Slave to Legislator
by David Trumbull -- February 7, 2014
Americans of every ethnic heritage can use African-American History Month as a time to meditate on America's greatness, her failings, and her promises. "ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL," proclaims our nation's birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence, yet under our first general government, the Articles of Confederation, and under our Constitution, until the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments (ratified from 1865 to 1870) States treated part of their population as less than equal. In the case of the 14th Amendment (citizenship and equal rights) and 15th Amendment (voting rights), we know that full implementation did not take place until the 1960s and another amendment, the 24th (abolition of the poll tax) and other civil rights legislation.
For too many years, America failed to live up to the promise made in the Declaration of Independence. However, that promise, once made, set America on a course that would surely, although not swiftly, lead to true equality. Black History Month reminds us of our national failure, but also of how far we have come, and should move us all to recommit to the struggle for freedom and equality.
One example of how far we came, and how relatively quickly, in the lifetime of one man, I direct you to the life of Boston resident Lewis Hayden.
According to information on the website of the National Park Service:
"Lewis Hayden was one of Boston’s most visible and militant African American abolitionists. He was born enslaved in Lexington, Kentucky in 1812. His first wife, Esther Harvey, and a son were sold to U.S. Senator Henry Clay, who in turn sold them into the deep south. Hayden was never able to discover their ultimate whereabouts. Eventually, Hayden was remarried to a woman named Harriet Bell and they escaped with their son Joseph to Canada in 1844, and then to Detroit in 1845."
Before the American Civil War, he and his wife aided numerous fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, often sheltering them at their Beacon Hill house. The Lewis and Harriet Hayden House has been designated a National Historic Site on the Black Heritage Trail in Boston.
A Republican, Hayden, in 1873, was elected as a representative from Boston to the Massachusetts legislature. He supported the movement to erect a statue in honor of Crispus Attucks, an American black who was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre, at the beginning of the American Revolution.
Hayden was not the first African-American elected to the Massachusetts legislature. In 1866 Charles Lewis Mitchell and Edward Garrison Walker were the first. They had been born free, as was John J. Smith, who was elected in 1868 and George Lewis Ruffin (1870). That 1873 election that put Hayden in office also saw the election of Joshua Bowen Smith.
Slavery, the condition of Hayden's birth, reminds us of America's failure, but his rise to respected Bostonian and representative of the people in the legislature proclaims America's greatness as a land that, belatedly, kept its promise of equality.