Race and Governance: Some Protest Is Required

“Asset Stewardship” can refer to city building, transit, power grids, school buildings.  It can also refer to governance.  Like physical assets structured on behalf of the citizenry, good governance is an asset needing stewardship, as well.

With nightly protests in Portland, Oregon now heading into the third month (July 2020), the Federal government has sent “troops” to quell the public protests, and promises to do the same in other cities.   It won’t be the first time.  In 1851, US Secretary of State Daniel Webster was intent on enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law.  He sent Federal troops to Syracuse NY to capture a runaway slave and return him to his “owners”.  But the people of Syracuse,  active abolitionists, heavily involved in anti-slavery organizing, major supporters of Harriet Tubman and the “underground railroad” took offense to Webster’s intentions.  They saw a “freedom seeker”, not a runaway slave.  They took to the streets to protect William “Jerry” Henry from the Federal forces…. and succeeded.  The story is memorialized on a statue in Clinton Square, Syracuse, NY, and repeated below.

The rescue on October 1, 1851, of William “Jerry” Henry an escaped slave from a Missouri, marked a turning point in the history of the Underground Railroad in Syracuse, central New York, and the Nation.  Just as secretary of state Daniel Webster had promised in May 1851 the Federal  government tried to capture and return to slavery  a freedom seeker in Syracuse to prove to the people of Syracuse that they must obey the Fugitive Slave Law.  They sent Federal Marshall William Allen to arrest William Henry on October 1 to coincide with “the next anti-slavery convention”, also as Webster had promised.

The people of Syracuse, however, were ready.  Organized by a Vigilance Committee of Thirteen, several hundred of them defied the law and helped make Syracuse a major haven for freedom seekers.

At noon on October 1, William “Jerry” Henry, who was working as a cooper, was seized on Syracuse’s north side and mainly Kohlberg wind screen seized or insert users and restoring and taken to U.S. Commissioner Joseph Sabine’s office in the Townsend Block (1) on the south side of Clinton Square (The Atrium Building). Syracuse Map - Freedom Seeker Simultaneously abolitionists were holding a Convention at the First Congregational Church (2) on East Genesee St.  

When word of the arrest reached the convention, a crowd quickly gathered in Clinton Square and filled the courtroom.   In the confusion, Henry bolted for freedom.  He ran east through Hanover Square until he was recaptured at the bridge at Lock St. (today’s State St.) (3) about four blocks east.  The arraignment was moved to a larger room in the police station (4), on the west side of Clinton St. from Clinton Square, where Henry was kept under guard in a barred room. 

Meanwhile members of the Vigilance Committee, including Gerrit Smith, A.M.E. Zion Minister Jermain Loguen, and Unitarian Minister Samuel J. May, met at the office of Dr. Hiram Hoyt to plan a new rescue effort.  They then joined hundreds of people outside the police building, several of whom were armed with clubs and axes.

About 8:30 PM men carrying a battering ram broke down the doors, overwhelmed the guards, and carried off the still-shackled Henry to Brintnall’s Hotel on East Fayette St.  William Henry was taken to the home of Lucy Watson, a 16-year-old African American girl.  With the help of blacksmith Peter Lilly, Lucy and her sister removed Jerry’s shackles, dressed him in women’s clothes and sent him over the back fence.  From there he went to the house of Caleb Davis (near East Genesee and Orange St.) where he hid for four days.  On October 5 he went north to Mexico, NY. where he stayed with Orson Ames and the Asa and Minerva Wing family before going to the Clark home in Oswego NY, and then to Kingston, Ontario.

The day after the rescue, the Liberty Party convention, referring to Daniel Webster’s prediction in May of an arrest in Syracuse, passed a resolution that stated: “We rejoice that the city of Syracuse, the anti-slavery city of Syracuse, this city of anti-slavery conventions, our beloved and glorious city of Syracuse – still remains undisgraced by the fulfillment of the satanic prediction of the satanic Daniel Webster”. 


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One thought on “Race and Governance: Some Protest Is Required

  1. Thank you for sharing this informative and, although historic, timely article. I have a friend who lives just a short distance from the Federal Building in Portland who reports that the violence is all coming from the unrestrained Federal troops who’ve been sent in to an otherwise peaceful city. The protestors in Portland want only to continue their affirmation of “black likes matter” and honor the memories of those black men and women who have been brutalized.

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