The Story Of First African American To Gain His Freedom After Being Caught Under The Fugitive Slave Act Of 1850

Engraving depicting James Hamlet. Public domain image


James Hamlet lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with his wife and two children, until he was apprehended under the Fugitive Slave Act. He belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. According to the Enslaved, New York was a safe haven for many freed slaves and runaway enslaved people in the 1800s, including Hamlet.

The African-American population was over 13,000 at the time of the Fugitive Slave Law’s passage in 1850, indicating the refuge the city provided. The passage of this draconian law, however, put Hamlet’s freedom under siege. On September 18, 1850, the United States Congress passed this law to allow slaveholders to relocate to free territories such as California, New Mexico, and other areas where freed slaves sought refuge. The law established special courts and administrators to prosecute and adjudicate cases involving escapees.

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The days of enslaved Africans gaining illegal freedom were over. The law was also expected to deal with those who assisted and conspired with a slave to flee his owner. Under the law, both the slave and the conspirator faced imprisonment. Unfortunately for Hamlet, when he was apprehended on September 26, 1850, he became the first casualty of the new law.

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U.S. Marshall Benjamin H. Tallmadge arrested Hamlet at his workplace after U.S. Commissioner Alexander Gardiner issued a warrant for his arrest. His former owner, Mary Brown, reported him to authorities, and she enlisted the help of notorious slave catcher Thomas Clare and New York City’s Union Safety Committee, a unit established to assist slaveholders in recapturing their slaves.

Brown claimed that Hamlet was her property and had fled. Her claims were supported by her son, Gustavus Brown, who provided oral testimony to back up her mother’s case. On the same day that Hamlet was apprehended, he was tried and convicted. His claim that he was not a slave because he was the son of a freeborn man was denied because such a claim was not permitted under the new law.

New York abolitionists were outspoken in their opposition, but they were unable to prevent his deportation. The hired legal counsel arrived late to represent Hamlet. Brown sold Hamlet from the moment he arrived in Baltimore. His advertisement in the Journal of Commerce claimed that he was a steady, correct, and upright man.

While attempts were made to have Hamlet sold, reports of his arrest and deportation triggered agitations in New York with abolitionists and religious activists pushing for his release. Black abolitionist leader and head of the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church Reverend Charles Bennett Ray during a sermon announced that $800 had been raised by abolitionists to pay for the freedom of Hamlet.

On October 5, 1850, the abolitionists secured the freedom of Hamlet and he was welcomed by a mammoth crowd in the New York City Hall. When Hamlet took the stage to speak, he was overwhelmed with joy. The only words he is reported to have said was that he is a free man.



Written by How Africa News

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