A tip of the hat by a Revolutionary War hero convinced teen-aged slave Lewis Hayden he was worthy of 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 large 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 was beaten into insanity for refusing the sexual advances of a man from a Masonic Lodge.
His owner, a Presbyterian minister, sold off his large family to different owners. Lewis was swapped for a pair of carriage horses. In 1830, he married Esther Harvey, who belonged to a different owner, and they had a son. But Esther and their son were sold to Henry Clay, and Lewis never saw them again.
By 1842 he married a second time, to, 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 his escape.
He had met two abolitionists: Delia Webster, a teacher from Vermont who was working in Kentucky, and Calvin Fairbanks, a Methodist minister. Fairbanks asked him why he wanted to be free.
Lewis Hayden replied,
Because I am a man.
In the fall of 1844, Fairbanks 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.
Webster and Fairbanks were arrested on their return, tried and convicted.
Lewis Hayden became a key figure in Boston’s abolitionist movement. He began work as a [s2If !is_user_logged_in()]
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[s2If current_user_can(access_s2member_level0)]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 Phillipsnow, it ought not appear what I shall be. I shall do all I can to make myself a man.
He succeeded. He and Harriet became staionmasters 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 was elected to the Massachusetts state senate in 1873,
The Lewis and Harriet Hayden Home at 66 Phillips Street on Beacon Hill is on the Black Heritage Trail.
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.[/s2If]