BY Stephen Nartey, 11:00am November 17, 2022,

Story of 1st 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 until his capture under the Fugitive Slave Act resided in Williamsburg in present-day Brooklyn with his wife and two children. He was a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. In the 1800s, New York was a safe haven for many freed slaves and runaway enslaved people including Hamlet, according to the Enslaved. 

At the time of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, the African-American population was over 13,000, giving a sense of what refuge the city provided them. Hamlet’s freedom however came under siege after the passage of this draconian law. This law was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850, to empower slaveholders to move to free territories such as California, New Mexico and other regions where freed slaves found refuge in its borders. Special courts and administrators were provided under the law to prosecute and adjudicate cases involving escapees. 

The days when enslaved Africans gained freedom illegally were over. The law also was expected to deal with those who aided and conspired with a slave to run away from his owner. The slave and the conspirator stood the possibility of being jailed under the law. Unfortunately for Hamlet, he became the first causality of the new law when he was picked up on September 26, 1850. 

Hamlet was arrested by U.S. Marshall Benjamin H. Tallmadge at his place of work after U.S. commissioner Alexander Gardiner issued a warrant for his arrest. He was reported to the authorities by his former owner, Mary Brown, who sought the services of notorious slave catcher Thomas Clare and the New York City’s Union Safety Committee, a unit established to assist slaveholders to recapture their slaves. 

Brown’s claim was that Hamlet was her property and had run away. These claims were backed by her son, Gustavus Brown, who offered an oral testimony to confirm the case made by her mother. Hamlet was tried and convicted on the same day of his capture. His plea of defense of not being a slave because he was the son of a freeborn was not admitted because such was not permitted under the new law. 

There was stiff opposition from abolitionists from New York but they were unable to stop his deportation. The legal attorney they hired arrived late to represent Hamlet. Hamlet was sold by the very moment he arrived in Baltimore by Brown. His advertisement was published in the Journal of Commerce with the claims 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.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: November 17, 2022


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