Milwaukee Black History: How Joshua Glover's Rescue Contributed To The Repeal Of Fugitive Slave Act

Feb 3, 2021

In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting Black history in Milwaukee and today, we look at the story of Joshua Glover, a Black man who escaped slavery in St. Louis to freedom in Racine.

His journey was significant nationally, as some northern states refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

At the edge of Milwaukee’s Cathedral Square Park, near the intersection of Jackson Street & Kilbourn Avenue, stands a marker dedicated to the rescue of Joshua Glover.

The Wisconsin Historical Society erected this marker dedicated to the rescue of Joshua Glover in Milwaukee's Cathedral Square Park in 2001.
Credit Teran Powell / WUWM

The first sentence reads, “Joshua Glover was a runaway slave who sought freedom in Racine in 1852.”

That was two years after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. It said that if slaves escaped bondage, even if it was to a free state, slaves had to be returned to their owners.

If slaveowners wanted to retrieve an escaped slave across state lines, all they had to do was show proof of ownership to court officials. But Glover’s story showed that would not be so easy in the free state of Wisconsin.

It had many abolitionists says Clayborn Benson, executive director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society.

Benson lists reasons for why Wisconsin was unique in its anti-slavery attitude.

"The Republican platform did not tolerate with slavery; their platform was not pro-inclusive, but anti-slavery. There was a thing called free soilers; the free soilists were anti-slavery. They didn’t like the fact that farmers in the south used free labor and the northerners — like Wisconsinites had to use their next-door neighbors, and cousins and nephews and their children to harvest their crop because this was an agriculture economy," he says.

Benson says in addition, Wisconsin had European immigrants who were descendants of slaves and were against the practice, and there was religious opposition as well.

So, it’s not surprising that abolitionists were outraged by how Joshua Glover was treated after he was discovered in Racine in March of 1854.

The original Milwaukee County Courthouse at Courthouse Square.
Credit Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

His former owner, along with a group of men that included law enforcement, found Glover in his Racine cabin, beat him up, and threw him in a wagon headed for the Milwaukee County Jail with the intent of returning him to St. Louis.

The jail sat on Courthouse Square — the area now known as Cathedral Square Park.

Benson says once news spread about Glover, abolitionists mobilized instantly.

"Sherman Booth, an abolitionist lawyer, he’s a newspaper publisher, learned that [Glover] is being held in jail and he travels throughout the area — bars, house to house, small communities — and he tells everybody that Glover is being held in jail as a fugitive slave," he explains.

By that afternoon, thousands gathered at the Courthouse Square.

Abolitionists gave impassioned speeches and attempted to get Glover an early hearing, since he was jailed on a Saturday and wouldn’t get to see a judge until the following Monday. That effort was unsuccessful.

Eventually, the crowd rushed the jail. Some of the protesters fashioned a battering ram from a wooden beam at the construction site of the soon-to-be built Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist.

The crowd freed Glover, cheering and parading him through the street to a nearby wagon. So began his journey through the Wisconsin network of the Underground Railroad.

Benson says Glover’s story was huge at the time, especially since Wisconsin defied the Fugitive Slave Law to free him — ultimately defying the U.S. Constitution.

"What Wisconsin did was hurry the Civil War on; that’s what Wisconsin did," he says.

Benson says the story was in newspapers across the country.

"And it was one of the many things that said that the war was necessary because the north was refusing to follow the rules that the south put on the table. The south said that all of our enslaved people must be returned — and it was agreed on — and the north said, 'No way. That’s not gonna happen here,'" he says.

And lengthy court battles followed. One of them ended in the Wisconsin Supreme Court deeming the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional. The law was later repealed.

Benson says Glover never returned to Wisconsin; he lived out the rest of his life working and raising his family in Canada. Glover died in 1888 at the age of 74.

But his story lives on — in the marker at Cathedral Square, in scholarly articles and a play. You can even spot an additional dedication to Glover’s rescue in a mural that adorns the I-43 underpass at Fond Du Lac Avenue.

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