Imagine what it would be like to be at your job, minding your own business, when the authorities come and take you into custody under the pretense that you had been a witness to a crime. You are confused, because to your knowledge, you witnessed no crime, but when you ask what is going on, no one tells you anything, but they handcuff you, and take you away. Your friends and coworkers protest, but it falls on deaf ears. You are not allowed to contact your wife and children in Williamsburg, or obtain the advice of a lawyer. Once in custody, you are not taken to the local jail, but soon find yourself on the road, headed south. Days later, you arrive in Baltimore, Md., by which time you have been informed that you are an escaped slave, and you are being returned into slavery, where you belong. Your captors are slave catchers.
The only problem is that you were a free man in Brooklyn, and didn’t even have the same name as the person they are looking for. No matter, because no one believes you anyway, and the protests of a Negro man don’t mean anything; one slave is as good as any other. This is a true story, and it happened to Williamsburg resident James Hamlet in 1850. Under the protection of the Fugitive Slave Act, Hamlet was legally kidnapped and taken out of state to Maryland. The slave catchers said he was an escapee named James Williams, who belonged to a woman named Mary Brown of Baltimore. Williams had successfully escaped north two years before, and was thought to be in New York City somewhere. Mary Brown’s son said that while he was on a trip to New York, he saw Williams and notified the slave catchers, who arrested James Hamlet at his job as a porter in lower Manhattan.
James Hamlet could prove that he was not James Williams, but under the new Fugitive Slave Act, his testimony was forbidden. He had no rights whatsoever to defend or prove himself in any way. As far as the law was concerned, he was property, and had no right to even prove that he was not. This case could have had a tragic ending, except for one thing: James Hamlet had friends in Brooklyn who would not be satisfied until he was back in Williamsburg in the arms of his family.
The national anti-slavery press took up the story in great detail for many weeks. Abolitionists in both Brooklyn and Manhattan raised funds to buy Hamlet back, raising $800. His story was printed in a pamphlet, the e-mail blast of its day, with copies handed out in the streets of both cities, making people aware of the case, and urging them to not only contribute to buying Mr. Hamlet’s freedom, but to protest the Fugitive Slave Act as well as the institution of slavery. Interestingly, the Brooklyn Eagle never wrote a word about it, even though it was a big story and had a Brooklyn connection.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, James Hamlet was put on the auction block to be sold into slavery. In an interview he gave later, he said that potential buyers had been cautioned that they would do well to not buy him, as he was a New Yorker and they would lose their money. Meanwhile, the money raised was rushed down to Baltimore, and James Hamlet was set free. Upon arriving back in New York he was hailed as a hero. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people came out to see him at City Hall Park in Manhattan. In Brooklyn, two separate celebrations were held at two different black churches, one in Williamsburg and the other Downtown, where many black Brooklynites lived.
This story had a happy ending, but the fate of another family probably did not. Earlier, in 1838, a black woman named Margaret Baker was in dire straits and took herself and her three children to the Brooklyn Almshouse for food and shelter. All of them, mother and children, had been born free here in Brooklyn. The Almshouse, which was a public charity run by the city, was charged with helping those who desperately needed it. Instead, the Almshouse administration accused Baker and her children of being fugitives, and without any magistrate’s order, trial or inquiry, had them all removed down South and sold into slavery. Anti-slavery forces tried to get Baker and her children returned, but by that time the trail had gone cold, and they were lost, never to be found. No one knows what happened to them, but we can certainly guess.
So here in Brooklyn in the middle of the 19th century, black people lived in a world of uncertainty; freedom was tenuous, yet there was also some progress and success. As mentioned in the last chapter, the African-American towns of Weeksville and Carrsville had been founded by the 1850s, and were places in Brooklyn where black people were successful businessmen, community leaders, and owners of their own successful churches, schools, charities and businesses. Black Brooklynites also lived throughout Brooklyn, with large populations in the Downtown and Vinegar Hill area, as well as in Williamsburg and elsewhere.
Black churches had been established, along with, by then, both private and public schools for “colored students.” Many African Americans were successful blacksmiths, carpenters, innkeepers, coopers, herbalists and midwives. There was a small upper class of lawyers, doctors, teachers and ministers. A large service class of servants, laundresses, laborers, dockworkers and other unskilled workers was in existence, as well, but everyone, from the highest to the lowest, was never without the constant knowledge that but for the grace of God, they could be slaves in the Southern United States.
No matter how high they rose, or how long their families had been born free, if they were in the wrong place, and without papers or proof of their status, they could be the victim of a false identification, and they were without the right to give testimony, demand justice, or prove who they were. The phrase “being sold down the river” meant just that.
With that in mind, black people in the mid-19th century were not sitting on their hands waiting for the end of slavery. There were long established and new groups, both secular and religious, that held conferences and lectures. Black religious and civic leaders, as well as ordinary citizens, all attended these marches and anti-slavery rallies. They passed out literature, and they gathered petitions. They had lawyers challenge the anti-slavery laws, and they joined with white abolitionist groups to rally against slavery. Women became some of the most ardent and hardworking advocates for the end of slavery in this country, taking leadership positions for the first time, and becoming successful administrators in the cause.
Former slaves wrote stories about their bondage and journeys to freedom, and they became speakers at black, white, and mixed abolitionist meetings. Frederick Douglass was the most famous, and perhaps most eloquent of these speakers, but he was but one of many who told horrific tales of enslavement and inspiring escapes to freedom. The “slave narrative” was born, and there were plenty to tell tales of horror.
The 1850s was the pivotal decade of the century. Slavery, like it or not, was the topic du jour. It affected everything on the national landscape. The expansion of the United States into the west was causing a crisis point for national politics. Would these new territories and states be slave or free? Did the government have the right to tell people that they could not bring slavery into the new lands? Or was it up to the people themselves to decide? The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 saw westward expansion, and a precursor of the Civil War was fought in “Bloody Kansas” over just those issues. A new political party would rise out of this issue, the anti-slavery leaning Republican party, with its candidate of choice, a man named Abraham Lincoln.
Anti-slavery protests were growing. Like protests against the Vietnam War more than a hundred years later, these demonstrations were working their way into America’s main streets, into their parlors, and into the daily conversation. The expanded and powerful Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, part of the so-called Compromise of 1850 between slave and free states, allowed the slave owners and their agents to have much more power in the North to capture and return escaped slaves from anywhere south of the Canadian border. It also made it a Federal crime for anyone to harbor or help the escapees. For anti-slavery activists, it soon became apparent that getting north to New York, Boston or Chicago was not north enough for escaping slaves. The Underground Railroad needed new stations leading all the way to Canada and brave people willing to break Federal law, not once, but consistently, in order to achieve success. One of the main terminals of the Railroad was Brooklyn. Next time we’ll look at our city’s participation in this pipeline to freedom. All aboard!