Monday, July 27, 2015

Sue Your Way to Freedom

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

When the Fugitive Slave Act was signed into law in 1850 it angered many northerners.  The law required that all law enforcement officials throughout the country (even in free states) arrest anyone accused of being a runaway slave and imposed a $1,000 fine (approximately $28,000 in present-day value) for any who refused to do so.  Suspected slaves received no trails and had no recourse for appeals, putting free-born blacks in serious danger of being kidnapped and taken south under false pretenses.  Any civilians who aided escaped slaves could face 6 months in prison and a $1,000 fine.  There was, however, a loophole: it only applied to slaves who entered free states and territories without their masters’ permission. 

On August 11, 1853, Jervis Langdon, Jared Arnold, and their attorney Mr. Woods petitioned the court of behalf of Miss Juda Barber, a 20-year-old slave.  Miss Barber was owned by a Mr. Barber of Missouri and had been lent to a Mr. Warner to act as a lady’s maid for his wife on their trip to Horseheads, New York.  Before they left, she had promised her master that she would return, but once she was here she decided to seek her freedom.  Woods argued that New York was a free state and Miss Barber was being illegally held against her will.  After hearing the case, Judge Arial Thurston, an avowed abolitionist and Underground Railroad supporter, declared her a free woman.  Miss Barber left the courtroom with Sandy Brandt and John Jones and vanished into history.

Jervis Langdon was an abolitionist and financial supporter of the Underground Railroad.  He helped to pay for Miss Barber's lawsuit.
Judge Arial Thurston was a personal friend of Underground Railroad conductor John Jones and had sheltered fugitives in his own home.  His ruling in the Barber case was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
The interesting thing about the case is that it was neither the first nor the last time a slave transported to a free state sued for freedom.  The last such case was, in fact, the famous Dred Scott v. Sandford heard by the Supreme Court in 1857.  Like Juda Barber, the slave Dred Scott had been transported by his master to a free state and sued for his freedom.  Scott lost his initial case and appealed to the higher court which not only upheld the lower court’s ruling but also held that blacks, whether slave or free, could not be citizens and thus had no right to sue at all.  The ruling was later nullified by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States.  Today the Dred Scott decision is widely regarded as the worst decision ever made by the Supreme Court. 
Dred Scott unsuccessfully sued for his freedom along with that of his wife and 2 daughters in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).  The ruling against him is widely regarded as the worst Supreme Court decision ever. 

1 comment:

  1. very unique article about slaves and how they were treated and how if anyone helped them would be imprisoned and fined. It is also worthy of note how much our country has changed since those days but in some parts of the country there is still some negative feelings of race which I hope will go away altogether