February has arrived. It is the month to celebrate black history. Too bad it is so short because there is so much to celebrate. It starts early in Syracuse, as Syracuse University annually celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King around his birthday in January. The huge Carrier Dome at SU has always been the usual venue of this event. The basketball court is transformed into a sea of decorated round tables. The meal is the same down-home-in-the-South menu of fried chicken or ribs, cornbread, collard greens, beans, and rice. Dessert is a choice of sweet potato pie or banana pudding. The beautiful words of the black national anthem are sung. The keynote speaker is always someone who is very noteworthy, usually it is a prominent black person. This year J. R. Martinez was the main speaker. You may recognize the name because he won in a recent season of Dancing with the Stars. However, he is also a motivational speaker, who was inspired by the severe burns he incurred when he was a member of the US Army. He is an advocate for people with disabilities. He is also a best-selling Hispanic author and actor. Much wonderful entertainment is also included in the event. Then the event ends with the Unsung Hero Awards. It is the largest MLK celebration in the nation.But I want to recall for you today someone else who was quite prominent in his day (much like Matilda Joslyn Gage), but few remember him today. He was a contemporary of Gage’s and would have known her father. He was also an ardent abolitionist. He was born a slave in 1813. Recently, the Sunday service at May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in Syracuse hosted a guest speaker from the Binghamton area of New York. Her name is Brenda Cave-James, and she is somewhat of an expert on Loguen and his mother, Cherry, and his daughter Amelia. Cherry was in the fields, and Mr. Loguen had to hold her down while they sold her children. She broke loose, and they caught her and brought her back. She had a nervous breakdown.
There is a picture of the handsome Reverend Loguen in Quoting Matilda, as well as a write-up about him. He was known as the King of the Underground Railroad. He was a passionate speaker and is credited with helping at least 1,500 fugitive slaves pass through Cortland, Syracuse, Skaneateles, Auburn, and on to Canada. He was a fugitive slave himself and had an absolutely horrifying experience as a slave in Tennessee. You can see the scars on the face of Jermain Loguen. He was fathered by his biological uncle.
“Jarm” left the plantation on Christmas Eve. He left his mother, promising to come back. His trip to the North was fraught with all kinds of danger, and he almost died twice. Jermain had never been more than ten miles from the plantation. He took the Master’s two horses. He experienced exposure to the weather and starvation. Someone stole Jermain’s saddle. He was alone and starving in Canada. He changed his name from Logue to Loguen. He farmed the land and educated himself. He was obsessed with getting an education. He came down to the United States, to the city of Rochester, New York. He settled near Whitesboro because it was the only town that would accept blacks.
African American, Native American, and French women from a family of abolitionists began a church near Utica, New York. They spoke against alcohol and slavery. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ), Freedom Church, had its headquarters in Montrose, Pennsylvania, for a while. He moved from New Jersey to Susquehanna County—strong abolitionists lived there.
In 1841, Jermain Loguen moved to Syracuse with his wife, Catherine. He taught wherever he could and spoke about the Underground Railroad. He lived near the crossing of Pine and Genesee Streets in Syracuse for about a year. His wife kept things going while he was away. The Loguens were close friends of Frederick Douglass. Jermain’s daughter Amelia, who was a teacher, married Fredrick Douglass’s son, Lewis Douglass. They spent lots of time in Binghamton and Montrose. He was one of the first black man to enlist as a soldier in the Civil War. He helped put families back together after the war.
His mother, Cherry, had to be left behind. Cherry (formerly Jane) had been a free Negro in Ohio but was kidnapped as a child by illegal slave traders who sold her into slavery—where she was abused and forced to become the mistress of the master’s son. Brenda Cave-James wrote a passionate poem about her. Actually, she says, as often happens, the poem wrote itself but just came through her.
Loguen’s sisters did not fare much better as they were sold off to pay the debts of the Logue plantation owners, though they had promised never to do that.
Jermain Loguen was one of the leaders of the famous Jerry Rescue that occurred in Syracuse in 1851. He had been a leader and spokesman for the town’s black community since 1841. He established a black church in Syracuse, becoming its minister, and he opened up a school where the black youth of Syracuse could learn to read and write. He was an active abolitionist and one of the foremost black members of the Liberty Party. He worked to establish racial egalitarianism in Syracuse so that it would become a place where black men and women could not only live in safety but could also flourish. Everyone recognized him as Syracuse’s Underground Railroad stationmaster. He committed himself to protect and provide for any fugitive that came through Syracuse. He told his friend Frederick Douglass, “Oppression has made me mad. It has waked up all my intellectual and physical energies.” His speeches would stir great emotion.
With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, societies dedicated to giving aid to runaway slaves, threatened by slave catchers, multiplied and many of them became biracial associations as more white citizens showed an inclination to defy the new law.
A fugitive slave named Jerry Henry, who had been living quietly in Syracuse for a few years and was an excellent carpenter, was arrested in a violent struggle that left him bruised, bloodied, and with torn clothes by federal officers. Jerry’s handcuffs remained on, and he begged for their removal as they placed him in leg-irons and threw him into a horse cart “like a hog.” Jerry cried out over and over, “Do anything with me, but do not take me back to slavery!” But the officers sat astride him to hold him down as they transported him to the police office on Clinton Street. A large crowd of Syracuse citizens trailed behind. They were angered by the treatment Jerry was receiving. He had not committed a crime. One witness wrote a letter to his brother, describing his feelings about the scuffle: “Soon came a scene that made my blood curdle in my veins; and made me ashamed of the land of my native country . . . I saw this fugitive from, not justice but injustice, dragged through the streets like a dog, every rag of clothes stripped from his back, hauled upon a cart like a dead carcass and driven away to the police office for a mock trial.” As Jerry was transported to the police office, the church bells in Syracuse resumed their cry that a fugitive needed aid. Many who had previously encouraged obedience to the Fugitive Slave Act turned against it when they saw the way Jerry was abused. A crowd numbering between four and five thousand people grew outside the police station while Jerry’s hearing was transpiring—a hearing where he was allowed no defense. Inside the building could be heard loud shouts for Jerry’s release. Some stones were thrown at the windows at the police commissioner’s office.
At nightfall, there were still two to three thousand people outside the building. The crowd included bonneted ladies and quite a few black people. At 8 p.m., members of the Syracuse Vigilance Committee, as planned, joined the throng of people in front of the police office. They mingled with the crowd. Soon after their arrival, someone shouted, “Now!”
At that signal, a group of men rushed out of the cluster of onlookers and attacked the building. They were armed with clubs, axes, and iron bars that a sympathetic hardware salesman, Charles Wheaton, had not so discreetly placed outside his hardware store earlier in the evening. “The chief movers of the crowd appeared to be negroes.” The drama increased when several men, who had not been part of the planning committee, arrived with a ten-foot-long wooden beam and proceeded to beat down the door of the building.
They beat down the door with this makeshift battering ram. The door collapsed, and Jerry’s rescuers pressed into the building. A federal marshal fired two warning shots. Someone hit his gun arm with a rod of iron, knocking the gun from his hands. The deputy turned to the nearest window and jumped from the second floor, onto the canal path below—the result was a broken arm. Others then pushed Jerry out of the back room, slammed the door behind him, and prepared to fight in self-defense.
Two black men grabbed Jerry, who was still shackled at both wrists and ankles. They carried him out of the building and down the street. He stayed in various safe houses over the next few days and then was able to escape the city and find his way to Canada. “The treason this time is that of a whole city,” reported the National Anti-Slavery Standard!
Loguen expressed his feelings with these words: “God grant that Syracuse be the honored spot, whence it shall send an earthquake voice through the land. We are determined to resist re-enslavement at all costs.”
I am very proud to be living in this fine progressive city of Syracuse myself!
Jermain Loguen went to Canada for seven months after the Jerry Rescue, as he feared for his own safety. “The cheeks of every American should burn with shame that such a man is compelled to fly to a monarchical government to preserve his liberty,” proclaimed the Syracuse Standard when Loguen had left the city. First, he had traveled to nearby Skaneateles, then to Rochester, and finally crossed the international border into Canada where he preached at a black church in the village of St. Catharines.