On a bright, cold morning last November, I walked Boston’s Black Heritage Trail, a hidden gem among the city’s trove of historic sites. I had followed it decades ago as a graduate student and was returning now with my mother after a recent move to Massachusetts. I was especially looking forward to revisiting one stop on the trail — Lewis Hayden’s house, in the now-affluent Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Hayden’s story had made a strong impression on me. His immediate family was shattered by slavery. He had escaped from Lexington, Ky., not far from where I grew up in Ohio, and went on to build a remarkable life in Boston. Years after my first visit to the house, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad, I could still picture the green window shutters and elegant doorway. I associated Lewis Hayden with the place where I grew up, with family, perseverance and good will. So I was disconcerted by what I found when I arrived at the house that autumn day.
The Hayden House in Boston.CreditKayana Szymczak for The New York Times
The ruddy bricks, green shutters and white curtains were just as I remembered them. But here was something new — a red, white and blue sticker on the windowpane trumpeting the National Rifle Association. This moment, which might not have caused a reaction in others, set me on a path of reflection, not just on the life of Hayden and those like him, but on the meanings of African-American gun ownership and my own deeply held beliefs about guns. What I learned surprised me.
My response to seeing the sticker was strong. I am an African-American historian and, on the matter of guns and most other political issues, decidedly liberal. To me, the pairing of Lewis Hayden and the N.R.A. felt like an affront. I knew for certain that Hayden fought for the right to be free from violent repression by white citizens wielding the weapons of guns, capital and political influence. I knew that he lost his family through a cruel, extractive system that reinforced — in fact, depended on — the ability of whites to inflict violence on the bodies of black people without legal repercussion.
A National Rifle Association sticker next to the front door of the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House.CreditKayana Szymczak for The New York Times
The N.R.A., on the other hand, has long been a boogeyman for me. I see it as an organization that stands in the way of laws to get automatic rifles out of the hands of people who might kill school children, hardened — or unresponsive — to the destruction that rampant gun violence wreaks. Who would plaster this flagrant symbol of white conservatism on the antique home of a black abolitionist who knew what it meant to be hunted? And why?
These questions nagged at me after my visit. I soon set out to get answers.
I contacted the National Parks of Boston, who passed along my contact information to the private owners of the Hayden House. I expected to hear nothing back; instead, I received an invitation. I accepted and agreed to return to the house in February.
Beforehand, I reviewed the basic historical facts of Hayden’s life. When Hayden was a boy, his owner, Adam Rankin (a Presbyterian minister), tore him from his mother and siblings and distributed them to different buyers. Rankin sold Hayden himself for a pair of carriage horses, a trade that honed the young man’s scathing analysis of slavery’s antihumanism.
In adulthood, Hayden’s first wife and child were also snatched away for the market. Hayden somehow made a new life, remarried, had a son, escaped with his new family to Boston, and operated an apparel shop with his spouse, Harriet Hayden.
An old photograph, postcard and writing about Lewis Hayden, kept by the current owners of the historic house.CreditKayana Szymczak for The New York Times
After earning enough to purchase his freedom (ransoming the life that should have always been his own), Hayden organized a fund-raiser to pay a $650 fine securing the release from jail of the white abolitionist who had aided his escape (a Methodist minister from the Midwest, Calvin Fairbank). Hayden chose the activist life, fighting for the dignity of others as part of what the historian Manisha Sinha called the “shock troops” of “fugitive slave rescues,” in her book “The Slave’s Cause.” The home that the Haydens made, the one I would soon be visiting, became a refuge for the hunted.
On the day of my visit, the homeowners, Mary and John Gier, ushered me in with warm smiles and graciously served tea and cookies. The couple, who are proud of their heritage (English, Dutch, Irish and German) but resist hyphenated labels like “Euro-American” or “African-American,” told me they bought the house in the 1970s. They cherish their historic home and have preserved or replicated most of the original features: cabinetry, doors, windows, flooring, fireplaces, and exterior brown brick. Even the 19th-century tunnel is visible in the subbasement. Lovingly restored and furnished with period antiques, the house looks much the same as it might have during Hayden’s residence. “Harriet Beecher Stowe probably sat there having tea just like you are,” they noted. “This is the same room where Hayden met with his band of resisters.”
Mrs. Gier confirmed that the sticker was a relatively recent addition to the facade, but it was clear she and her husband saw the N.R.A. emblem as simpatico with the home’s spirit. To them, Lewis Hayden is a “model for America.” Mrs. Gier thinks if he were alive today, he would be a member of the N.R.A. or the National African-American Gun Association. “Can you imagine what would have happened had he not had his guns?” she said. “I believe that Hayden would have left no stone unturned to maintain his defense. In that sense, he is not unlike our law-abiding citizens today who are protecting their constitutional rights.”
I am anti-gun and support strict gun control laws. But sipping tea with the homeowners, walking the floors where the Haydens and their compatriots had plotted what turned out to be the roots of a political revolution to overturn slavery, pried ajar a little door in my mind.
The owners also have an old newspaper illustration that shows musket guns owned by Lewis Hayden.CreditKayana Szymczak for The New York Times
Hayden was indeed a man who believed in firepower. He was legendary for threatening slave catchers who showed up at his doorstep in pursuit of fugitives. His home was “converted into a veritable fortress, with doors and windows double locked and barred,” write the historians James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton in “Black Bostonians.” The Hortons describe William and Ellen Craft’s visit in 1848, after the pair fled Georgia in a brilliant escape from slavery. William posed as the property of his wife, a woman light enough to pass for white. Ellen dressed like a man to perfect the ruse. Their destination was the Hayden home where, as the story goes, “Hayden’s son and a number of armed men” secured the premises. “Two kegs of gunpowder had been placed on the front porch, and while the slave catchers watched in disbelief, Hayden lit a torch threatening to blow up his house, himself, and anyone attempting to enter.”
While the historian Stephen Kantrowitz cautions in his book “More Than Freedom” that Hayden’s actions were embellished over time, he traces the claim that “Hayden had readied kegs of gunpowder in the basement, in case slave hunters forced their way inside,” to a statement by William Craft himself. Drawings of the interior of Hayden’s home from an 1889 edition of The Boston Evening Transcript show rifles leaning against the back parlor wall above the caption: “The Guns Were Always Ready for Use in an Emergency.”
Harriet Tubman.CreditFrom "Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman," by Sarah H. Bradford, 1869.
Of course, Hayden was not alone in his stance of armed self-defense in the pre-Civil War era. Ms. Sinha notes: “Black abolitionists, especially those involved in the abolitionist underground and Vigilance Committees, tended to arm themselves … fugitive slaves, often resorted to armed self-defense when confronted by slave catchers and law enforcement.” The Underground Railroad activist Harriet Tubman was said to carry a revolver and did not hesitate to point it, according to her biographer, Sarah Bradford.
Of course, just as racism and discrimination did not disappear, neither did the movement for black self-defense. In the tumultuous civil rights era of the 1950s and ’60s, black activists and community organizers openly took up arms. And not just those in the more explicitly militant Black Power movement. Martin Luther King Jr., several N.A.A.C.P. officials and other leaders perceived as much more dovish, still carried or stored weapons to defend their households and communities from potential attacks.
What about today? In what might be described as another moment of peril for African-Americans — with rates of racially motivated hate crimes on the rise, organized white supremacist rallies and open advocacy of white power ideology becoming more common — black gun ownership has surged. The numbers increased markedly after the election of Donald Trump, according to reporting from NPR.
Some identify as “gun-comfortable,” like the political scientist Jason Johnson, who attended the 2017 N.R.A. convention and concluded at The Root.com that the event stoked “white fear of imaginary terrorists, black thugs and immigrants.” Others are “super assertively pro-gun,” like Maj Toure, founder of Black Guns Matter. Mr. Toure is a former member of the N.R.A., and he told me in a phone interview that there are many more black members who will speak of their involvement only in “hushed tones.” While he is critical of the N.R.A. for not doing more for urban Americans, he sees the group as an important civil rights organization.
In 2015, Philip Smith founded the National African-American Gun Association in Georgia. His members, he said, are predominantly first-time gun owners and educated professionals, “engineers, doctors, state workers, federal workers, stay-at-home moms.” While he has close ties to the N.R.A., Mr. Smith’s goal was to build a black association that was “self-governed, self-maintained, self-driven.” Today, Mr. Smith said, the N.A.A.G.A. has 75 chapters in 30 states. He expects to be in every state within a year.
Black gun owners are not a monolith, Mr. Smith stresses. “We have black Republicans, Democrats, gay, straight.” In what may come as a surprise to some, black women make up 60 percent of the association’s membership, according to the group. Women are the ones “driving our organization, driving gun sales,” he said. Even black gun owners preparing for natural or human-made disasters (“preppers”), which he estimates make up about 5 to 10 percent of N.A.A.G.A.’s membership, are growing in visibility.
Sharon Ross, creator of the website Afrovivalist, counsels and trains women of color who want to be armed.CreditChad Brown for The New York Times
Sharon Ross, creator of the website Afrovivalist, sees Afro-survivalism as a growing movement inclusive of all people of color. She said she counsels and trains women of color who want to be armed. “It’s amazing what we don’t know,” Ms. Ross said, speaking by phone from her home in Oregon. “As people of color, we don’t have the stockpile that the average Joe white guy has.”
Ms. Ross said she is preparing for extremes — climate disaster, even war. “If there is some kind of race war — or whatever it might be — we’re definitely outnumbered when it comes to firearms and bullets.” In 2018, she was featured in an episode on black survivalists in BuzzFeed’s Netflix documentary series “Follow This.”
Aton Edwards, founder of the International Preparedness Network, was featured in a segment of the show as well. In one scene he addresses a group of trainees, asking: “What’s our community going to do? Ask for help? From the Trump administration? … Every other day on the internet we’re hit with another racist attack, and another, and another. This is America in 2018. You’d think that this is 1818, the way this is going down.”
Saleem Gilmore is a member of the National African-American Gun Association and the president of the Oakland, Calif., chapter. Noting America’s history of slavery, Mr. Gilmore said, “I own a gun simply out of self-respect, self-preservation, self-determination, and in honor of my ancestors.”CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times
An essay on black gun history posted to the N.A.A.G.A. website quotes anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells as lauding the Winchester rifle and abolitionist Frederick Douglass as heralding “the ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box.” African-American gun proponents link the present-day climate to struggles of two hundred years ago and conclude that wisdom compels armed defense.
Even as the survivalist movement took me a distance from my own experience (unlike Ms. Ross, I would have no idea how to kill a wild turkey and roast it for dinner), I began to wonder: What about those close to me? I took an informal family poll that left me reeling. I learned my relatives have guns. They store weapons in hidden chambers inside homes where we gather; they possess permits to carry concealed weapons and take target practice; they have friends who bring guns to church in case the congregation should need shielding; they are prepared to “protect my family no matter who comes through the door” and readying themselves for a “major environmental act.”
At last, I was left having to examine myself. “You’re not anti-gun,” Mr. Toure told me. “Ask yourself this. It’s a zombie apocalypse. Tomorrow, you wake up, and you can’t find your children. You go out to search for them. Do you want a gun now?” His analogy was not outlandish. This was, of course, the constant threat enslaved people endured. Had I been fooling myself about my anti-gun stance? I don’t think so, but I did come to realize through a series of unexpected exchanges that the issue was more complicated than I had allowed and that my views of just coexistence and human flourishing might not require the absolute prohibition of arms.
I concede that Lewis Hayden could be viewed as a champion of the right to bear arms in defense of freedom. But more than that, he dedicated himself to community building, forging a complex, self-funded, interracial network of people joined in common cause. Guns were there to defend those things. The home he made with Harriet was a gathering place for the Boston Vigilance Committee, for progressive white Bostonians and for members of the enslaved and free black population. Mr. Kantrowitz observed that Hayden sought to build “a world of common struggle against slavery in which racial hierarchy seemed to dissolve into human unity and affection.” Together, Lewis and Harriet Hayden opened their doors to those on the run, turning their home into a haven for strangers whom the federal government deemed illegals.
This is the essence of his example that I hope our community and country will follow. After sipping tea at the Hayden House, I am still suspicious of the N.R.A., and I would not abide having a gun inside my dwelling or my children’s schools. But where would I want to be if civil society topples and 2020 feels like 1820? In a home like the Haydens’, in a neighborhood like the North Slope of 19th-century Beacon Hill, in a community fortified by love in action and maybe a powder keg beneath the floorboards.