Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Enduring Legacy of the Fugitive Slave Act by David J. Johns

David J Johns
David J. Johns, Executive Director of National Black Justice Coalition

*The following is authored by David J. Johns, Executive Director of National Black Justice Coalition. 

Recently I heard a friend say the following, and I felt each word pierce my heart like a dagger as they fell from his lips, “I know white people who are planning the future while the smartest Black and Brown people I know are focused on trying to get the police to stop killing us.”

This statement still sits with me because it speaks to the continued investments that African descendants chiefly make to address the problems that transatlantic enslavement and U.S. capitalism have created. The statement also speaks to how so many life opportunities and outcomes are shaped by the enduring problems caused by race and racism in America.

On September 18, 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was signed into law by President Millard Fillmore. Created as an attempt to keep the Union together and avoid a civil war, the Act was meant to enforce Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3, otherwise known as The Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution. This article states that enslaved Africans did not become free if they managed to escape to a free state and required them to be returned to their masters. The Fugitive Slave Act and the rift it caused between anti- and pro-slavery states contributed to both the Civil War and the formal end of slavery.

Tongayi Chirisa in “Antebellum.” Courtesy of Lionsgate

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was actually the second Act of its kind. The first Fugitive Slave Act was enacted in 1793. This law allowed slave owners and their agents to search for runaway slaves in free states and it punished people who helped harbor and conceal enslaved Africans. In the North, where anti-slavery sentiments were rising, many intentionally neglected to enforce the law. Some people engaged in helping enslaved Africans make their way to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Some of the Northern states even passed “Personal Liberty Laws,” which gave the accused escaped slaves the right to a trial and protected free Black people.

An unintended consequence of the Fugitive Slave Acts was the theft and kidnapping of free Black people who were forced into slavery by bounty hunters and others seeking to profit from Black bodies. While there has been much attention paid to the horrifically brutal nature of slavery, the way that we remember slavery in America seems to suggest that both that period in our history and the collateral consequences of it are over. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as evidenced by this moment in the movement for Black lives. Dr. Joy DeGruy has pioneered thinking about “post traumatic slave syndrome”. Building upon the foundation that she has helped to establish, it’s also important to think about the unrelenting impact that slavery continues to play in all of our lives.

Both Fugitive Slave Acts were repealed by an act of Congress during the Civil War on June 28, 1864, and with the Civil War came the official end of slavery. But the oppression and discrimination Black people face did not end then and still continues to this day. There’s a movement to help people and medical practitioners understand the consequences of persistent traumatic environmental factors that impact the lives of African descendants in peculiar ways and the newly released feature film ANTEBELLUM brings the current costs of historical traumas into focus.

The impacts of intergenerational trauma and systematic racism are not discussed enough. The signs, symbols, and systems that are used to preserve and perpetuate privilege often go ignored. And the consequences of Black people still facing disproportionate levels of bias, discrimination, and violence are too frequently dismissed, which is precisely why I am excited about the conversations that will be had after ANTEBELLUM is released on September 18, 2020 — the anniversary of the Fugitive Slave Act.

ANTEBELLUM invites many of us to think about what it feels like to be trapped–confined by the horrifying trappings of our collective and not too distant past. The opening scene of ANTEBELLUM is a reminder of this very fact–of the contradictions that exist in a democracy that has been consistent and intentional in attempting to deny Black, Latinx and poor people access to opportunity. I don’t want to give away anything from the movie but consider the fact that while few people would think to get married at a concentration camp, there are thousands of couples clamoring to celebrate their holy matrimonies at plantations today. ANTEBELLUM invites us all to consider how the legacy of plantations have been shaped over time and how those narratives impact our lives today.

I sometimes wonder if the spirits of our ancestors could speak to well-meaning white people who celebrate confederacy without acknowledging the damage its legacy continues to cause, and what they would say to them. After viewing the film ANTEBELLUM, written and directed by the talented duo Bush + Renz, I can imagine what this conversation might sound and feel like. Go watch the movie and ensure you’re registered to vote.

ANTEBELLUM premiers on demand Friday September 18th, which is also the day that BET & the National Urban League have dubbed as the inaugural ‘National Black Voter Day.’

David J. Johns is Executive Director of National Black Justice Coalition

David J. Johns is the Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC). David is known for his passion, public policy acumen and fierce advocacy for youth. He is an enthusiast about equity—leveraging his time, talent and treasures to address the needs of individuals and communities often neglected and ignored. A recognized thought leader and social justice champion, David’s career has focused on improving life outcomes and opportunities for Black people.



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