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Enslaved People in the Southeast


Fugitive Slave Bill

Broadside announcing the controversial Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850. Image courtesy of East Carolina University.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 legalized the pursuit and kidnapping of enslaved people living in Free states. The controversial law even compelled citizens from Free states to assist in the capture of runaway enslaved people under the threat of penalties including imprisonment: “And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant… be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment. The language of the law described runaway slaves as “fugitives from service or labor” in an attempt to mask the exploitative nature of slavery through a rhetoric of debt and entitlement privileging “slave owners."

This broadside announces the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to the public. Many of those in the Anti-Slavery community gave this act the nickname “Bloodhound Law"; in reference to dogs used to hunt the slaves down. The Fugitive Slave Act was formally repealed in June 1864. However, by this time the Union policy of confiscation and military emancipation had usurped the operation of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Freedom Papers of Joe Cornish

Freedom papers for Joe Cornish issued by the Board of Police of Adams County. Image courtesy of Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University.

This document, issued by the Board of Police of Adams County, enabled the recipient, a free man of color named Joe Cornish, to remain in the county. The document provides a physical description of Mr. Cornish, and attests to his good character. The importance of the document is in part conveyed by the materials used to create it: thick vellum, and the official seal of the Adams County Board of Police. A Certificate of Freedom was not impermeable protection, however - a writ of habeas corpus (“produce the body”), describing Joe Cornish as a runaway slave, issued in March of 1843, is held by the Beinecke Library at Yale.

The law and other documents through the articulation of complaints regarding “uncontrollable” and “fugitive negros” be it through escapes to the North and Canada, via the Underground Railroad in the 1850s, or earlier escapes to the South in Florida, under Spanish colonial rule, point to a general fear of the unraveling of slavery in the country. The publication and distribution of illustrative propaganda, booklets, broadsides, and advertisement are indicative of mounting tension within the national discourse and foreshadow disunion around the issue of slavery.