Even before sanctuary cities, here’s how black Americans protected fugitive slaves

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Over the past few days, the national climate has grown increasingly tense over the issue of “sanctuary” cities and states. Local communities, including some college and university campuses, have pledged to shield undocumented children and adults from President Donald Trump’s proposals for deportation. Municipalities and campuses remain steadfast even in the face of the president’s threats to withhold federal funding from these communities.

This opposition between federal authorities and local communities is hardly new. As a scholar of slavery and emancipation, I have studied the long history of African-American communities and how they offered sanctuary or protection to the most vulnerable among them.

In particular, I have looked at how in the 19th century, before the abolition of slavery in the United States, free black people openly defied the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 that sanctioned slavery over the human rights of enslaved people.

The law that supported rights to slaves

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 built on provisions in the Constitution and a 1793 law that barred slaves from escaping from a state where slavery was legal to one where it had been banned.

Fugitive Slaves Recaptured: 1850. Washington Area Spark, CC BY-NC

While the Constitution mainly called for the return of runaway slaves, the 1850 law vastly expanded the authority of federal law enforcement officials. The law criminalized helping or harboring a runaway slave and denied the accused person the right to offer testimony in her or his own defense.

The 1850 law confirmed what generations of enslaved African-Americans knew too well: They existed as property, not persons, in the eyes of the law.

Enslaved women and men could not enter legal marriages because slaveholders claimed their bodies, time, movement and even reproductive capacity. Law and custom dictated that enslaved women gave birth to enslaved children.

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