A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Anthony Burns Checks


Buying a slave's freedom may appear to be a noble and great gift by an abolitionist, but the circumstances, choices, and consequences are complicated. In February 1855, an abolitionist minister in Boston named Leonard Grimes uses these two checks to purchase freedom for Anthony Burns, an African American slave captured in Boston in 1854. (Visit the Society's Object of the Month for September 2010 to learn more about the trial and rendition of Anthony Burns.) The autobiography was written by a former slave, originally published anonymously, to show the horrors of slavery.


Selection from the Massachusetts Historical Society: Checks used to purchase the freedom of Anthony Burns, 1855.
Selection from the Library of Congress: Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston: Published for the author, 1861. (Read Chapter XLI: "Free at Last!" pages 299-303.)

Questions to Consider


  1. What are these checks for? Why are there two checks? Why do the names of both Leonard Grimes and the Union Bank of Maryland, Baltimore, appear on the checks? Who was Charles Barry and what role did he play in this transaction?
  2. How does Harriet Jacobs feel about having her freedom purchased? Is she grateful? Angry? Why?


  1. Why is a man being purchased? Why is Burns not free in Boston? What events result in his return to the South?
  2. Jacobs, at this point of the story, is in the free North. Why is she still in danger from the man who owns her?


  1. What motivates Leonard Grimes to write these checks? What motivates Barry to save them so that they end up in his collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society?
  2. Originally Harriet Jacobs wrote her autobiography anonymously. Why do you think she chooses to remain anonymous even when she is free?


  1. What intentional messages do these checks convey? What unintentional messages?
  2. How might an abolitionist feel after reading this part of Jacobs's narrative? What is the essential dilemma that this well-meaning person would confront?


  1. After reading Jacobs's diary you have learned of one former slave's opinion on having her freedom bought. Imagine you are Leonard Grimes: what would you have written in your diary after writing those checks?
  2. Now imagine you are Anthony Burns: what would you have written in your diary after gaining your freedom through the purchase of your supporter, Grimes?