Commentary

The ‘Jerry Rescue’ 170 years later: And its lessons for modern racial justice | Michael Coard

In 1851, Black and white abolitionists staged a daring rescue for an escaped enslaved person

The Jerry Rescue Monument in Syracuse, N.Y. (Image via VisitSyracuse.com, used by permission).

By Michael Coard

On Friday, Oct. 1, it will be exactly 170 years ago to the very day that at least 26 revolutionary Black and white abolitionists in Syracuse, N.Y., along with strong Black and white local community support, “violently” rescued 40-year-old William “Jerry” Henry who had escaped slavery in Missouri 17 years earlier.

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Unfortunately, on that fateful day in 1851, he was arrested pursuant to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by five U.S. Marshals working with “slave-catching” bounty hunters.

At the outset, I must explain what I mean by “violent.” I mean exactly what Brother Malcolm meant when he said “I don’t call it violence when it’s in self-defense [or in defense of others]. I call it intelligence.”

And the rescue was very intelligent.

Here’s the background as documented by New York History Net, which is a website for historians and students of New York history:

“Around noon on Oct. 1, 1851, U.S. Marshals from Rochester, Auburn, Syracuse, and Canandaigua, accompanied by the local police, arrested a man who called himself Jerry, also known as William Henry. Jerry was working as a barrel maker, and was arrested at his workplace. He was originally told the charge was theft until after he was in manacles. On being informed that he was being arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law, he put up substantial resistance, but was subdued.”

Eleven months earlier, on Sept. 18, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which was the major component of the Compromise of 1850, was passed by Congress. That act, which is set forth in the federal statutes at 9 Stat. 462 and Pub.L. 31-60, officially mandated that:

“[A]ny person who shall … obstruct [or] hinder or prevent [a ‘master’ or his/her representative]… from arresting… [an escaped ‘slave’] fugitive from service of labor… shall be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months.”

By the the way, $1,000 in 1850 equals $35,072.69 in 2021.

On that Oct. 1, 1851 date when 2,500 members of the Liberty Party were holding their New York State Anti-Slavery Convention in Syracuse, people began hearing rumors and then whispers regarding the arrest. And those whispers transformed into a local buzz. That’s when the conventioneers, who were holding their event in a church, found out about it. And as soon as they did, they set up a plan to congregate at Jerry’s arraignment that was scheduled to be held at the office of a local U.S. court commissioner. But the confrontational congregating was not to begin until a prearranged signal was given. And that signal was the ringing of the church bells.

When the fiery abolitionists — both Black and white — heard the bells ringing, they gathered at the commissioner’s office where a scuffle ensued, leading to a small clash wherein the anti-slavery activists were able to pull Jerry away, resulting in his escape while still shackled. However, it was short-lived because Jerry was quickly recaptured on one of the bridges over the Erie Canal.

But the bold freedom fighters weren’t done. In fact, to paraphrase Captain John Paul Jones- an American Independence War hero known as the father of the U.S. Navy (who ultimately repented from his previous “slave-owning” days) — they took the position that “We have not yet begun to fight!”

After his initial brief escape, Jerry was transported by law enforcement authorities to the nearby courthouse jail. It was there where the militant abolitionists reorganized for round two, this time with more comrades, totaling 2,500. They shouted and screamed and demanded Jerry’s immediate release.

As noted by the Onondaga Historical Association, this revolutionary activism was the brainchild of two woke Unitarian ministers. They were the formerly enslaved Rev. Jermaine Wesley Loguen, a prolific Underground Railroad conductor who later became Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the preeminent abolitionist, socialist, and feminist, Rev. Samuel Joseph May of Syracuse who is best described as a cool white guy and genuine ally.

From that massive crowd of 2,500, at least 26 took things to the next level. In addition to possessing axes and clubs, they had a battering ram that they used to break down the courthouse door. Despite gunfire from marshals, they pressed forward until they began to punch, beat, and kick the marshals, the police, the “slave” catchers, the prosecutors, and the court officers until Jerry was released.

Following this made-for-TV pitched battle and dramatic escape, neighbors in the area, as noted by New York History Net, hid Jerry in the city for several days at the home of a local butcher known for his abolitionist activism.

Jerry was later secretly placed in a wagon and taken to Oswego where he discreetly sailed on Lake Ontario to Kingston, Ontario, in Canada. Happily, he lived the remainder of his life there as a free man.

As pointed out by Syracuse University Special Collections Research Center, “The Jerry Rescue was celebrated as one of the great triumphs of the antislavery movement and became an integral part of the lore and the strategizing of abolitionists in the region.”

The moral of the story (for me, at least) is this: “When the law is unjust, the just must break the law — by any means necessary.”

Opinion contributor Michael Coard is an attorney and radio talk show host. He wrote this piece for the Philadelphia Tribune, where it first appeared

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