Lemmon v. New York, or Lemmon v. The People (1860) was a freedom suit begun in 1852 with a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The case brought up questions about the legality of slavery within the United States , especially challenging the slavery laws between the northern and southern states.
While relocating to Texas by way of New York State, Virginia enslavers Jonathan and Juliet Lemmon brought to the city of New York eight enslaved people. They made up two family groups, each headed by a young woman: the first was Emiline (age 23), Edward (age 13), brother of Emiline; and Amanda (age 2), daughter of Emiline. The second was Nancy (age 20); Lewis (age 16), brother of Nancy; Lewis and Edward (age 7), sons of Nancy; and Ann (age 5), daughter of Nancy.
New York had abolished slavery gradually beginning in 1799, freeing all remaining slaves on July 4, 1827. An 1841 state law explicitly prohibited slaveholders from bringing slaves in transit to the state, and required their liberation.
The habeas corpus petition, filed by free African American abolitionist activist Louis Napoleon, was granted by the Superior Court in the city of New York. It was upheld by the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, on the eve of the Civil War in 1860 and sent shock-waves through the pro-slavery South. The decision mandated the release of the eight enslaved people.
Attorney John Jay (1817-1894) represented the state in the 1852 case. Future President Chester A. Arthur represented the state when the case was appealed by the enslavers, assisted by William M. Evarts, Joseph Blunt, and Erastus D. Culver.
In an online event produced by the New York State Archives Partnership Trust, New York State Archivist Thomas Ruller and Historical Society of the New York Courts President Emeritus Hon. Albert M. Rosenblatt had an in-depth discussion about the case.
The New York State Archives Partnership Trust and the Historical Society of the New York Courts have announced a traveling exhibit on the Lemmon Slave Case, opening January 10th at the Rockland County, NY courthouse, located at 1 South Main Street, New City, NY.
The exhibit will open January 24th at the Newburgh City Court and February 7 at the Orange County Courthouse. The Historical Society plans to bring this display across the state through 2023.
For more information visit the Historical Society of the New York Courts website.
Photos: Enslavers Juliet and Jonathan Lemmon (courtesy Shirley Craft, from findagrave.com); and the Lemmon Slave Case traveling exhibit (provided).