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New guidebook highlights Boston's abolitionist heritage

Sandra Larson | 7/7/2011, 9 a.m.

“When Thomas Sims was sent back, the abolitionists were outraged — but many others in Boston supported that,” she explained, standing near the John Sweat Rock house on a recent June morning. “Even people who were anti-slavery supported it. There was real hope this compromise would avert a war.”

But by 1854, when fugitive Anthony Burns was marched through town on his way back to the South and slavery, resistance to the Fugitive Act had risen.

“The reaction in Boston in 1854 when Burns was sent back was tremendous,” she said. “The Burns case converted a lot of people. It galvanized the city. It was really a turning point.”

After the earlier freeing of Minkins, one participant had called the raid “the most noble deed done in Boston since the destruction of the tea” in 1773.

That’s the type of connection Berenson found fascinating in her research.

“One of the things I thought was so incredible about the abolitionist movement was how motivated people were by the revolutionary era Patriots,” she said. Revolutionary pride showed up often in anti-slavery rhetoric.

“When they spoke at Faneuil Hall they called to mind the stirring speeches given there by the Patriots,” she said. “When Garrison set up ‘The Liberator,’ he said he was doing it in the shadow of Bunker Hill.”

Berenson’s interest in writing this guidebook was inspired by years of showing Boston history to her now-grown children, she said, and also by coming to work at the John Adams Courthouse every day, where she works as a senior attorney with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Strolling downtown daily, Berenson is surrounded by history. She’s been transformed by it, and wants to pass that knowledge on.

 “For years, when I walked by the Tremont Temple Baptist Church and the Orpheum Theater, I saw them as they are today,” she said. “But now I think about these incredible celebrations that took place at those sites on Jan 1, 1863, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.”

“Walking Tours of Civil War Boston” is available for purchase online at www.thefreedomtrail.org and at visitor information centers around Boston.