By Jennifer L. Warren
HYDE PARK – The facts unraveled are shocking and cannot afford to be ignored.
They center upon slavery. More specifically how that practice impacted this immediate area: Dutchess and Ulster Counties. It’s a part of New York that had a more concentrated use of enslaved agricultural labor than almost any other place in the North. It was also a region which played a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad as well as abolitionism.
These little known nuggets of history, combined with a pressing need to raise attention to a topic too often overlooked, led to the 2006 formation of the Mid-Hudson Antislavery Project.
Wednesday evening, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum and the Mid-Hudson Antislavery Project, represented by Executive Director, Daniel Jones, merged in a shared purpose to bring too long obscured, critical history to light, as they took part in an on-going series, “The Roosevelt Story Conversations,” inside of the Henry A. Wallace Center. Here, Bill Harris, Director of the FDR Library engaged in an enlightening chat with author, Albert M. Rosenblatt, whose book, The Eight: The Lemmon Slave Case and the Fight for Freedom, was recently published.
Jones introduced the book’s main platform as “one of the most momentous civil rights cases in our history.” Harris then went on to emphasize to the audience how, “more than anything this case was about people’s lives.”
Rosenblatt, a former judge and lawyer, who possesses a long resume of credentials in the legal field, incited his words with a background about the practice of slavery, indicating its long, informal usage by the Dutch prior to it being more formally brought here to New York by the British in 1665, where it lasted over a century.
“We have actually had slavery here in New York longer than we have not had it,” pointed out Rosenblatt.
He then proceeded to delve into the details involved in this transformative court case. While he was serving on the court, Rosenblatt was exposed to the pulse of the Lemmon case.
“People knew that it existed, but that was about it,” said Rosenblatt. “This case had legal consequences, but like so many cases, it was really more about the people involved and their lives.”
Those individuals were eight slaves, who back in 1852, were transported in steerage by their then owners, Juliet and Jonathan Lemmon. Commuting from the slave state Virginia, through the free state, New York, to their destination, Texas, this contingent was about to get involved in one of the most important legal cases in the history of our country. Since the moment a slave stepped on the soil of a free state, he-she was no longer considered enslaved, those eight slaves had technically earned a free status upon entering New York, soon to be offered freedom by Louis Napoleon, the son of a slave, abolitionist slave, and a conductor of the Underground Railroad.
“Both of the young mothers wanted to accept this offer,” recalled Rosenblatt, who conducted extensive research on these families as well as the legal intricacies of the case that was to ensue. “They took a chance, because they really wanted to be free.”
Rosenblatt’s book not only details the background of that ticket to freedom for eight people, but so too the brewing controversies that resulted. After all eight successfully went to Canada via the Underground Railroad, and were never heard from again, two divisive sides emerged on the legal actions pursued. On one side, New York State had a statuette, clearly stating that an enslaved person becomes free once he-she touches soil there. While the opposing argument centered upon a judge, according to Virginia law, should have no right to take their slaves away from their owners.
However, two variables: Habeas Corpus and the inapplicability of the Fugitive Slave Act, led the pendulum to swing toward the freedom ruling. The first deals with the query, “by what right do you have to hold this person,” while the second was questioned by a little known, Lower Court Judge, Elija Paine.
“Were these slaves escaping,” challenged Paine. “So how can Fugitive Law, having to legally return them to their owners, apply?”
This groundbreaking challenge led to the first-ever time a case of free status had to be determined when a slave was merely walking through a free state. Paine goes on to rule in favor of the eight, emphasizing that New York does not recognize people as property. Amid total chaos by many, and although Virginia attempts to appeal the verdict, nothing ever amounts.
Rosenblatt also shared during the talk about how he was able to find an “elusive” family member of the youngest of the eight during his research, sharing many of these unknown details with his family.
“Let’s just say, there was a lot of crying happening- with them and me-when I told them about their relative,” recalled Rosenblatt.