Display in county courthouse highlights New York’s landmark anti-slavery case in 1850s

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 15 July 2022 at 3:38 pm

Photos by Tom Rivers

ALBION – There is a display in the lower level of the Orleans County highlighting a landmark case in New York that ordered the release of eight enslaved people, including six children.

The display is moving to courthouses throughout the state. It was in Albion this week and will remain at the courthouse through next Friday. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 said enslaved people who made it to free states could be arrested and returned to their “owners” in slave states. This panel is among the displays in an exhibit at the Orleans County Courthouse.

The display highlights the Lemmon Case from 1852 to 1860.

The Lemmon family was moving eight enslaved people them from Virginia to Texas. At the time of 1852, it was common to board a ship in New York as part of a trip from Virginia to Texas, according to the display which was researched by the Historical Society of New York Courts.

The Lemmon case began in Nov. 6, 1852 when Louis Napoleon brought a writ of habeas corpus before the New York Superior Court. He asked the court to declare the freedom of eight people the Lemmon family claimed to own.

The enslaved people were being transported by the Lemmon family from one slave state (Virginia) to another (Texas) where the Lemmons planned to settle.

Janet DiFiore, Chief Judge of the State of New York, said the ruling in the case “was in direct conflict with the Supreme Courts infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857 and it represented one of the most unyielding anti-slavery decisions made by any court in the United State prior to the Civil War.”

She encouraged people to take time to learn about the case. The exhibit is planned to be on display at 45 courthouses over a nearly two-year stretch.

“We are grateful to the Historical Society on the New York Courts for creating this excellent exhibit on the Lemmon Slave case featuring a short documentary narrated by James Earl Jones that brings to life the courageous lawyers, judges and citizens including many New Yorkers of color who helped rescue and represent the 8 enslaved people,” DiFiore said.

Some highlights about slavery in America included in the exhibit:

  • By 1850, enslaved people had been in America for approximately 230 years. Starting as a trickle of enslaved people in 1619 and the 1620s, by 1850 there were more than 4 million enslaved people in the United States.
  • Despite the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, more than 1,000 formerly enslaved people passed through New York to freedom, aided by the Underground Railroad.
  • Louis Napoleon, who pushed to free the eight enslaved people, lived in Staten Island. His mother was an enslaved African-American and his father a white French Jew. Napoleon made helping to free enslaved people his life’s work. His obituary listed his occupation as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
  • The people enslaved by the Lemmons lived free in Canada for most of the 1850s. That was a decade when slavery and anti-slavery passions were so intense that it led to the Civil War.
  • Harriett Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, also was published and sold 300,000 copies in the first year. The detailed depictions of the brutality of slavery motivated more people to be abolitionists.