About 171 years ago, a group of Black and White abolitionists in Syracuse, New York, with support from locals, broke into a city building and freed William “Jerry” Henry. 40-year-old Jerry had escaped slavery in Mississippi some 17 years earlier and was working as a barrel-maker in Syracuse when he was arrested at work by U.S. Marshals on October 1, 1851, and taken to the Townsend Block on the corner of West Water and Clinton streets near the Erie Canal for a hearing.
He was initially told the charge was theft but later when he was in manacles, he was told that he was being arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act, a part of the Compromise of 1850. The act required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. The act also said that the federal government was responsible for finding, returning, and trying escaped slaves.
On the day of Jerry’s arrest, the anti-slavery Liberty Party was holding its New York State Convention in Syracuse. Members of the party and other local community members who were strongly opposed to the Slave Act heard about Jerry’s arrest and decided to get him released from the office of a local U.S. court commissioner, where he had been taken for arraignment. Their first effort to free Jerry failed as he was soon recaptured after being able to escape to the street in irons.
After his failed escape attempt, Jerry was transported by law enforcement authorities to the nearby courthouse jail. It was there that the Black and White abolitionists planned their second move to get Jerry released.
Members of the Liberty Party who were in the city for the anti-slavery convention, alongside thousands of people in the community, gathered in front of the building where Jerry was being held. After receiving a signal from their leaders, the crowd of about 2,500 broke into the jail, freed Jerry, and helped him escape to Canada.
As stated by the Onondaga Historical Association, two ministers led the plan to free Jerry. They were Jermaine Loguen, a former slave from Tennessee who became a Methodist minister in Syracuse, and Samuel May, a Unitarian minister. Their plan to free Jerry worked after the first one failed.
As noted by New York History Net, “a large crowd gathered in the street, this time equipped for a more serious rescue attempt. With a battering ram the door was broken in and despite pistol shots out the window by one of the deputy marshals, it became clear that the crowd was too large and determined to be resisted. The prisoner was surrendered, and one deputy marshal broke his arm jumping from a window to escape the crowd. The injured prisoner was hidden in the city for several days in the home of a local butcher know for his anti-abolitionist sentiments, and later taken in a wagon to Oswego, where he crossed Lake Ontario into Canada.”
Jerry lived the rest of his life in Canada as a free man. His rescue was celebrated as “one of the great triumphs of the antislavery movement,” according to Syracuse University Special Collections Research Center, adding that it also “became an integral part of the lore and the strategizing of abolitionists in the region.”
Two weeks after the famous rescue, Rev. Samuel J. May delivered the following speech to the Convention of Citizens, of Onondaga County showing how charged up the crowd was to get Jerry freed:
“But when the people saw a man dragged through the streets, chained and held down in a cart by four or six others who were upon him; treated as if he were the worst of felons; and learnt that it was only because he had assumed to be what God made him to be, a man, and not a slave—when this came to be known throughout the streets, there was a mighty throbbing of the public heart; an all but unanimous up rising against the outrage. There was no concert of action except that to which a common humanity impelled the people. Indignation flashed from every eye. Abhorrence of the Fugitive Slave Bill poured in burning words from every tongue. The very stones cried out.”