A tip of the hat by a Revolutionary War hero convinced teen-aged slave Lewis Hayden he deserved respect.
It was 1825, and the Marquis de Lafayette was passing through Kentucky on his tour of all the U.S. states. He could not have known the consequences his small gesture would have.
Lewis Hayden was born into slavery on Dec. 11, 1811, on a plantation in Lexington, Ky. When he was seven or eight, his mother refused the sexual advances of a man from a Masonic lodge. For her defiance, she was beaten into insanity.
His owner, a Presbyterian minister, then sold off Lewis’ large family to different owners. He swapped Lewis for a pair of carriage horses.
In 1830, Lewis married Esther Harvey, who belonged to a different owner, and they had a son. But Henry Clay bought Esther and their son, and Lewis never saw them again.
By 1842 he married a second time, to Harriet Bell, also enslaved. Lewis cared for her son, Joseph, as his own. He feared he’d be separated a third time from his family, and he hated slavery. So he planned their escape.
Lewis Hayden replied,
Because I am a man.
In the fall of 1844, Fairbank and Webster, the Hayden family and another fugitive set out in a rented carriage for Ohio. Lewis and Harriet covered their faces with flour and hid Joseph under the seat.
They reached Ripley, Ohio, where the small family took the Underground Railroad to Canada. They moved back to Detroit, then Boston, where they became leaders of the African-American community.
But Webster and Fairbank were arrested on their return, tried and convicted. The governor pardoned Webster after two months in prison, but he didn’t pardon Fairbank. So Lewis Hayden raised $650, effectively a ransom to his former master. That paved the way for the governor to then pardon Fairbank.
Lewis Hayden became a key figure in Boston’s abolitionist movement. He began work as a speaker for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Free from slavery for only a few years, he wasn’t much of a lecturer and was told his “agency was stopped.” He sent the Society a letter saying,
You all know it is me jest three years from slavery… if I am not Wendell Phillips now, it ought not appear what I shall be. I shall do all I can to make myself a man.
Hayden succeeded in business and in politics. His clothing store on Cambridge Street grew to the second largest black-owned business in Boston. He and Harriet became stationmasters on the Underground Railroad. He persuaded John Andrew to run for governor, and Andrew joined them at their home for a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day in 1862. John Brown stayed at their home; Harriet Beecher Stowe visited him there. They helped rescue fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins and tried to rescue Anthony Burns. Lewis also won election to the Massachusetts state Senate in 1873.
The Black Heritage Trail. now features the Lewis and Harriet Hayden Home at 66 Phillips Street on Beacon Hill.
The Liberator in 1855 wrote of him:
Hayden is a remarkable man — one who has seen much both of slavery and freedom. … Mr. Hayden has the confidence of all good men at the North, and his acquaintance is cultivated by most of our leading politicians. He is a noble example of what freedom will do for a man. … he has pursued a high and honorable course, doing much to elevate the colored population of our city, and has established himself in a respectable business — thus proving conclusively that a colored man can become a man of business, and evidencing to the world the practical results of freedom.
Lewis Hayden died on April 7, 1889.
This story was updated in 2022.