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Untold Lowell Stories : Black History

Freedom Seeker – Nathaniel Booth (1826 – 1901)

               

Middlesex Mechanics Association Building is the block to the left of the Merrimack House (demolished - now location of Speedway Gas Station), corner of Merrimack and Dutton Streets. UMass Lowell Libraries, Center for Lowell History, Lowell Historical Society, negative files.

 

Assistants: Peter and Lephe Lewis, Walker, Elizabeth Lewis, Daniel Barth, Ithamar Warren Beard, Linus, Free Soilers Party, and Citizens of Lowell

Nathaniel Booth was born a slave on a Virginia Plantation in February 1826. At the age of 17, Booth escaped and sought freedom in the North. Arriving in Lowell, Massachusetts about 1844, he settled and opened a barbershop on the first floor of the Middlesex Mechanics Association Block located on Dutton Street (now Youth Built Building, Community Teamwork Inc). It was not unusual for black barbers and hairdressers in New England to be active in the abolition and anti-slavery movements. Barbershops were often gathering places for black and white abolitionist, who were organizing efforts to end slavery. Together, they planned fundraising fairs, arranged visiting anti-slavery lectures, and help freedom seekers.

The Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress in 1850 penalized officials in any state who did not arrest alleged “freedom seekers” (slaves), making them subject to a fine of $1,000 (about $30,000 today). Any citizen aiding in these efforts were subject to as much as six months in jail.

Shortly after the Fugitive Slave Act was implemented, "one or two slave catchers" were seen in Lowell, as a result Nathaniel Booth fled to Canada. Immediately and publicly the local Free Soil Party lead by Chauncey Knapp pleaded with Booth to return to Lowell, offering him full protection. One member expressing "a willingness to suffer death rather than let a fugitive slave be caught when it was within his power to prevent it." Shortly after this announcement, Booth returned to Lowell and moved in with the Walker Lewis (see: February 8, 2021 Lowell Black History Story) family of free African Americans living and working in Lowell. They were active in the Massachusetts anti-slavery movement and instrumental in the Local underground railroad.

American Citizen, Lowell, October 2, 1850

MANSTEALERS IN LOWELL!

“We understand that one or more persons were in the city yesterday for the purpose of capturing Mr. Nathaniel Booth, the barber, who has a shop near the Washing House, a very respectable man, who has been in this city for some years. Mr. Booth was formerly a slave in Virginia. He is now in Montreal and his friends yesterday telegraphed to him that he had better remain there for the present. We hope, however, he will return to the city, for we think there are MEN enough in Lowell who believe in the “higher law,” to protect him against all efforts of the manstealers. In the meanwhile we recommend to all persons, who come to Massachusetts on that business of the account of Haynau’s excursion to the London Brewery.

Weekly Journal and Courier, Lowell, April 7, 1851

PURCHASE OF SLAVE’S FREEDOM

“We understand that that Mr. Booth, the colored barber, and a fugitive, who went to Canada some time since and returned after a brief sojourn there, is in a fair way of receiving his freedom papers. A day or two since, his owner in Virginia wrote to the Hon. Linus Child (ed: Agent/CEO, Boott Cotton Mill), that unless Booth's freedom were purchased, he should be compelled to adopt legal measures for his surrender. He stated that he was worth $1,500 to him, but that, under the circumstances, he would take much less. He was finally induced to say he would relinquish his claim for $700. Accordingly, on Saturday, a paper was drawn up by I.W. Beard, Esq., who heading it up with $25, and about fifty were obtained without taking it out of the entry. We hear that it will be taken round today by some one, and we presume the requisite sum will be obtained in the course of a few days. The subscriptions are payable to Mr. Child, and they will not be called for unless the whole shall be raised. An opportunity is here presented for the exercise of a little practical philanthropy on the part of our abolitionists, which of course, they will not allow to pass unimproved.” (ed: money was raised and purchase was completed)

As a free man, Booth continued to live and work in Lowell. In 1855, the Massachusetts Legislature passed the comprehensive Personal Liberty Laws, which practically nullified the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The South viewed this action as defying the Federal Constitution and tensions between the North and the South grew.

In the late 1850s, Nathaniel Booth moved his barbershop to Boston, Massachusetts. In his work for the abolition movement he traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he met Frances 'Fanny' LeCount Johnson. On August 24, 1858, they married in Philadelphia. Frances LeCount Johnson was from a prominent African American family in Philadelphia.

In 1859, Nathaniel and Fanny returned to Boston, there Nathaniel operated a barbershop and continued to work for abolition. While living in Boston In 1860, he resided with escaped slave Henry Williams aka Seth Botts, his wife, Elizabeth Nelson, and his daughter Mary Mildred Williams (Link Below: Henry Williams’ heroic efforts to rescue his daughter from Slavery.) After the Civil War, Nathaniel, Fanny, and their young daughter Ida moved back to Philadelphia, there they there raised 10 children. Nathaniel Booth died 1901, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania leaving a large, extended family throughout the mid-Atlantic.

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