When he’s not studying, Harvard Medical School student Sean Fletcher counsels Boston adolescents about HIV and AIDS at Boston Children’s Hospital. He mentors minority high school students interested in health professions. And he’s a research assistant at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Lewis Hayden, dead 125 years now, would be proud.
Hayden, an escaped slave who eventually made his way to Boston, was a prominent abolitionist and a state representative. He came to understand the roots of political power and the importance of education, according to those who have studied his life. And it was in that spirit, they believe, that his widow, Harriet, donated their estate on her death in 1893 to establish a scholarship at Harvard Medical School (HMS) for black students.
“The scholarship symbolizes hope for the future,” said Fletcher, a first-year student at HMS. “It’s inspiring to be part of that future.”
Stephen Kenney, director of the Commonwealth Museum, which this month opened a three-month exhibition on Hayden’s life, said that though Hayden had no official links to HMS, he had a strong connection with Henry Bowditch, a physician, ardent abolitionist, and Harvard Medical School professor. During his years working in Boston, Hayden met several abolitionists with Harvard ties and came to understand higher education as a gateway to wider opportunity.
“He had a sense of how the world worked and wanted to connect black students to that world,” Kenney said.
Hayden was born a slave in Kentucky in 1812. His first wife, Esther Harvey, and his son were sold to Senator Henry Clay, who sold them farther south. With his second wife, Harriet Bell, and her son, Joseph, Hayden escaped to Ohio in 1844. The three continued to Canada. In 1846 they arrived in Boston.
Hayden joined the abolitionist movement and the family home became a stop on the Underground Railroad. He helped free former slave Shadrach Minkins from federal custody during a trial to determine whether Minkins should be returned south under the Fugitive Slave Act. He was known to tell slavers that he had kegs of gunpowder near his door and would rather blow up the house than see the ex-slaves within captured.
Hayden, who ran a clothing store on Cambridge Street in Boston, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1873.