American History

Sanctuary City

On September 26, 1850, six days after President Millard Fillmore signed the federal Fugitive Slave Law requiring Americans to aid in the capture and return of runaway slaves, two deputy U.S. marshals arrested James Hamlet in New York City as he was working at his job as a porter. Hamlet, a runaway slave, had fled bondage in Baltimore, Maryland. He had arrived in New York by train in 1848 and, with his wife and three children, had settled near Brooklyn in a township then called “Williams-burgh.” Distance conferred only the illusion of freedom. Hamlet’s owner, Mary Brown, dispatched slave catchers—her son Gustavus Brown, son-in-law Thomas Clare, and a hired agent. In New York, the three presented documents to a federal official who ordered Hamlet arrested and, on the spot, held a hearing at which Hamlet was barred from testifying. The presiding officer agreed that Brown owned the Black man, ordered Hamlet shackled, and had the prisoner hustled aboard a steamship to Baltimore, where Brown put her returned human chattel up for sale.

The Hamlet episode marked the Fugitive Slave Law’s debut. The case emphasized the difficulty of implementing that much-disputed measure, enacted to compel the return to slave states of runaways in free states. Previously, slaves who reached a free state could claim freedom. Hamlet’s pursuer, Thomas Clare, told the New York press the price of his prisoner’s freedom was $800. On September 31, more than 2,000 members of Black civic organizations and a “slight and visible sprinkling of white abolitionists” packed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Church Street in Manhattan; a pass of the collection plate met Brown’s price. Back in New York, Hamlet appeared October 5 at a “great mass meeting of colored citizens” at City Hall Park in Manhattan. He told the crowd that when he was to go on the block in Baltimore would-be purchasers heard warnings to avoid buying him because “he had tasted liberty, and therefore could never be held again in chains.”

Hamlet’s experiences and

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