During Black History Month, it is useful to recall well-known Black Americans and also some not-so-well known. Jermain Loguen (1813-1872) fits a category of those who deserve more recognition and attention.
Born into slavery in Tennessee, he escaped to Canada (where slavery was outlawed) in 1834 and moved to Rochester in 1837 and then to Syracuse in 1841. He became a teacher and then a minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. An eloquent speaker, he used his sermons and public presentations to advocate abolition and resistance to slaveholders and to urge enslaved people to escape. Loguen had an apartment in his Syracuse home for freedom seekers and identified himself as “Underground Railroad Agent.” Loguen assisted more than 1,500 enslaved Black people to freedom, earning the informal title “King of the Underground Railroad” in Syracuse.
Syracuse became a major destination for fugitive slaves. Some just stopped there on their way to Canada and freedom. Others settled down in Syracuse, a tolerant and welcoming city. The Federal Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, threatened that route to freedom.
Loguen was the star speaker at large protest meeting in Syracuse in September of that year. Calling the law a “hellish enactment,” he asserted that fugitives “will have their liberties or die in their defense… I don’t respect this law – I don’t fear it – I won’t obey it! It outlaws me and I outlaw it and the men who attempt to enforce it on me.” He urged his fellow citizens to “smite to earth the villains who may interfere to enslave any man in Syracuse.”
Loguen soon had the opportunity for more direct action. William Henry, known as “Jerry,” like Loguen an escaped slave, had been living in Syracuse quietly for several years. But on October 1, 1851, Henry was arrested by a deputy U.S. marshal and a slave-catcher representing his former owner in Missouri, and a Syracuse police officer, pursuant to a warrant under the Fugitive Slave Act.
Syracuse citizens were enraged at this act in their peaceful city. Loguen worked with a fellow Syracuse minister Samuel May, abolitionist Gerrit Smith from nearby Peterboro, and others known as the “Vigilance Committee” to assemble a crowd to demand Henry’s release from the jail where he was being held. By evening, the crowd had grown to around 2,000 people.
Syracuse police, who had been reluctant to assist in Henry’s capture in the first place, and the Onondaga County Sheriff decided not to confront the crowd. Loguen said the time had come for direct action. “Now is the time to try the spunk of white men,” he said. “I want to see whether they have courage only to make speeches and resolutions when there is no danger.”
The crowd soon took action. They attacked the prison, smashed windows, chopped away window casings, began removing bricks from the walls, and used a battering ram to smash down the doors. The crowd entered the building, splintering furniture. The deputy guarding the prisoner fled. The crowd carried Henry out the front of the building. They put him in a wagon that had been brought to the scene by the Vigilance Committee. The driver drove him around the streets of the city for the next couple of hours in case anyone tried to recapture him. Soon, he was spirited away to Mexico, New York, and then to Canada and freedom.
Legal authorities were determined to prosecute members of the crowd, but it was difficult to empanel jurors who could attest they had no preconceived notions about the case. Witnesses were scarce or, when the time came to testify, suddenly could not seem to recall for sure just what they had seen. Some of the rioters had been disguised, and it had been nighttime. Some of the Black members of the crowd fled to Canada.
Jermain Loguen, a fugitive slave himself and almost certainly part of the crowd at the rescue, also went to Canada. But he felt uneasy. “Has it come to this? Is slavery so mighty that I must quit my country? Shall the battle of slavery be fought and I not suffered to engage in it? And who shall engage in that battle if I may not?”
Loguen returned quietly to Syracuse in the spring of 1852. A marshal served him with an arrest warrant but he was never arrested. Several trials of other accused rioters ended in hung juries. In the end, only one member of the crowd was convicted, though he died while his case was on appeal.
The “Jerry Rescue” was one of the most dramatic acts of public resistance to slavery in U.S. history before the Civil War. It is commemorated by a monument at Genesee Street at Clinton Square in Syracuse. It shows Loguen and Samuel May leading and guiding Henry in his escape. Actually, Loguen’s and May’s roles were less hands-on than that but the monument represents their broader role in opposing slavery and organizing the rescue and Henry’s determination to be free.
After the Civil War, Loguen assisted newly freed Black Americans and continued his church. He was elevated to the rank of bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. He recorded his work in an autobiography, The Rev. J.W. Loguen as a Slave and as a Freeman: A Narrative of Real Life , in 1859.
Loguen is an excellent example of an abolitionist leader who inspired people to action. Syracuse was a good example of New York communities that opposed slavery and assisted those trying to escape it.
Illustrations: Jermain Wesley Loguen (engraving); and detail of the Jerry Rescue Monument in Syracuse.