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In 1851, the people of Syracuse saved William “Jerry” Henry from being captured after escaping slavery. Nearly 171 years later, “Jerry Rescue Day” is still commemorated in Syracuse each year on October 1.
Henry was able to escape slavery in Missouri in 1850 with the help of abolitionists and local citizens, eventually making his way to Syracuse where he worked as a barrel-making cooper in Clinton Square. On Oct. 1, 1851, federal marshals captured and arrested Henry, said Robert Searing, curator of history at the Onondaga Historical Association.
“It was not just an act of resistance but also an act of hope, of the world they hoped to come,” said Reverend Dr. Eric Jackson, acting president of the NAACP Syracuse branch and local pastor. “(A world) where people born on the continent of Africa and living in America would not be enslaved and would be treated as equal citizens and not judged on the color of their skin.”
Henry was taken to a hearing that would decide whether he would be sent back to Missouri. As the hearing unfolded, hundreds of activists and abolitionists gathered in Clinton Square for a Liberty Party convention, the first national political party to call for the abolition of slavery, Searing said.
Henry attempted to evade arrest but failed, prompting the town’s abolitionists to plan another escape. Abolitionist sentiments were growing in Syracuse at the time, allowing citizens to mobilize and help individuals escape slavery, Searing said.
The crowd in Clinton Square had grown to around 3,000 by the evening, made up of both abolitionists and people who wanted to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Searing said. The law required that enslaved people be returned to their owners if they escaped or were freed.
“(Jerry Rescue) is certainly a major inflection point in what becomes a highly contentious and heated sectoral controversy, which ultimately culminates in the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861,” Searing said. “It’s an event that is a lightning rod for controversy.”
At the ringing of a church bell, abolitionists stormed where Henry was being held in Clinton Square. Henry then hid in the house of a non-abolitionist for days until the abolitionists helped him get to Kingston, Canada. After crossing the border, he was a free man.
It was not only an act of resistance but also an act of hope, of the world they hoped to come
Eric Jackson, vice president and acting branch president at the NAACP
Joan Bryant, an associate professor of African American studies at Syracuse University, said “being free” as a black person in the 1850s came with restrictions, even in states like New York.
“No matter where someone who was legally enslaved went, even if they escaped to the free north, they weren’t safe,” Bryant said. “That’s one of the things that angered some people, that there was no space where slavery didn’t control.”
Jackson, who is also a pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, said there was no “easy route” to social and political mobility for escaped slaves.
“I think (escaping slavery and living free) took a lot of courage. It took a lot of willpower. It took a lot of courage,” Jackson said. many people in the community who had restorative, economic and social power certainly didn’t know that.”
Before the Civil War, Syracuse was known as the “Great Central Underground Railroad Depot” where slaves could escape and try to be free, Searing said.
But the federal government continued to side with slavery, Bryant said. The fact that people went after those who escaped slavery illustrates attitudes towards claims of “ownership” at the time, she said.
“It says something about the complicated emotions surrounding people’s views on owning human beings, that someone would help that particular person become free but not take a stand against slavery itself,” said Bryant.
Rescues like Henry’s have drawn more attention to tensions between the local community and federal law under the Fugitive Slave Act, Bryant said, revealing that state and local activism could challenge the law. federal.
The Jerry Rescue Day monument in Clinton Square, established in 2001, shows Henry alongside two community members who helped him escape: Samuel May, a white abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, and the Reverend Jermain W. Loguen, a black man who had previously escaped his own enslavement, Searing said.
Searing believes the monument symbolizes reform and civil resistance.
“It’s a beautiful piece of public art that depicts an incredible act of civility and resistance to what people saw as simply immoral and unconscionable legislation,” Searing said.
Jackson also explained how the monument stands as a piece of history to remind the Syracuse community of its collective impact.
“Monuments are important because they tell, in many ways, the story of what a community truly values,” Jackson said. “It is important not only for this generation that has taken up the work, but also for generations to come for eternity.”
Published September 29, 2022 at 1:02 am