On October 1, 1851 the citizens of Syracuse answered the call to turn out in force and physically remove William “Jerry” Henry from the custody of Federal Marshalls who had detained him under the Fugitive Slave Law. The Jerry Rescue was an act of resistance to an unjust law. What, in the 21st Century, do we see as calling us to radically defy injustice?
Paul Barfoot shared:
This morning we celebrate an event that took place 172
years ago today. That event has become a symbol of
resistance to unjust laws and massive action to defy the
authority that would impose them. Like most events that
have become legend, it was probably much more complex
than the story we are told. The motivations of some
participants may not have been as pure as we are led to
believe. Still, it is a fact that on the evening of October 1
1851, an angry crowd freed a man from being returned to
Syracuse in 1851 was a new city only three years old. The
city had been incorporated when the villages of Syracuse
and Salina joined together. The new Erie Canal was bringing
new prosperity and new ideas.
The state of New York had outlawed slavery a generation
earlier. The northern states had done the same around the
same time. The tension between northern free states and
southern slave states was growing. As more states sought
admission to the union, the question of whether they would
be slave states or free states became more important and
many attempts were made to create a balance of power
between the two sides to avoid a civil war.
When California asked to become a state in 1849, a group
of Senators including Daniel Webster and John C Calhoun
proposed a Fugitive Slave Act that would require the free
states to return anyone who had escaped slavery.
President Zachary Taylor strongly opposed this course of
action and vowed to veto such a bill.
At the same time, the abolition movement was gaining
strength. There were several different factions. Some
favored gradual emancipation through legislation. Others
favored immediate emancipation of all slaves in all of the
United States. One of those people was Gerrit Smith, a
wealthy land owner from Peterboro in Madison County who
would fund the more hardcore abolitionist, including John
Another was Rev Samuel May the minister at the Church of
the Messiah Unitarian Church in Syracuse. He had come to
Syracuse making it very clear that he would speak out
strongly from his pulpit against the evil of slavery and do
everything in hie power to eradicate it.
Rev Jermain Wesley Loguen a minister of the African
Methodist Episcopal Church understood from personal
experience what was involved. He had been born into
slavery. His mother who was born free had been kidnapped
in Ohio and sold into slavery in Tennessee. Loguen had
escaped on his own at the age of 21. He was very vocal
about assisting others in their quest for freedom. When he
and his wife Carolyn built their new house on the corner of
Genessee and Pine Streets, they included in the design a
secret room where people could be hidden. Rev Loguen
advertised in the newspapers that he would help those who
were fleeing the south. He refused to purchase his freedom
as some who had fled to the north had done. The risk was
huge but he persisted.
A loose network of those who were willing to help had
formed. This network became known as the Underground
Railroad. Syracuse, because of its geographical location
close to Canada, because of its proximity to the Oswego
River and because of the Erie canal AND because of the
growing abolitionist sentiment here became known as the
Grand Central Depot of the underground Railroad.
On July 9, 1850 President Taylor, who had opposed a
federal law to require the return to slave states of those
who had managed to escape, died of cholera. The new
President, Millard Fillmore was considerably weaker
politically and chose not only to support the law but to
champion it – with an eye toward election in 1852 (He lost
that election by the way)
On July 20 1850, President Fillmore appointed Daniel
Webster who had pushed for the Fugitive Slave Law when
he was a senator, as Secretary of State
On September 18 1850, the Fugitive slave law was passed
and signed by President Fillmore.
It is important to understand how shocking this was. The
whole underground railroad system was based on the idea
that people who escaped enslavement could live freely and
openly in northern states. The Fugitive Slave Law not only
put the weight of the federal government behind returning
those who had escaped (without trial by the way) but it
required that any citizen could be compelled to aid in the
capture and return of people who had escaped slavery and
that if they didn’t, they could be charged with a federal
In May of 1851, Daniel Webster came through Syracuse on
the Erie Canal as part of a campaign to promote the Fugitive
Slave Act. He was well aware of Syracuse’s reputation .
Speaking here he said,
“You have heard it here, have you not? Has it not
been said in the county of Onondaga?” “If men get
together and declare a law of Congress shall not be
executed” as they have several times in this city,
“they are traitors, and are guilty of treason…It is
treason, treason, TREASON, and nothing else.”
The challenge had been made and the citizens of
On October 1 1851, when William Henry, known as
Jerry, a local cooper who had escaped from being
enslaved by his own biological father by the way, was
arrested by Federal Marshalls, the enraged citizens of
Syracuse forcibly removed him from custody and saw
to it the he
Got to Canada
Samual R Ward, a congregational minister in Syracuse and
publisher of The Impartial Citizen, one of the earliest black-
owned newspapers here made the following statement
“They say he is a slave. What a term to apply to an
American! How does this sound beneath the pole of
liberty and the flag of freedom? What a contradiction to
our ‘Declaration of Independence’!
“What did our fathers gain by the seven years’
struggle with Great Britain, if, in what are called Free
States, we have our fellow citizens, our useful
mechanics and skilful artisans, chained and enslaved?
How do foreign nations regard us, when knowing that it
is not yet three short months since we were celebrating
the Declaration of Independence, and to-day we are
giving the most palpable denial to every word therein
The song will tell the rest of the story. For the moment, let
me just say this. In 1851 Syracuse had a population of about
22,000 people. The crowd that showed up to free Jerry was
estimated to be somewhere between 2500 and 3000.
Who Rescued Jerry?
The Ballad of the Syracuse Jerry Rescue
The city of Syracuse once was known as the Great Central Depot
Of the famous Underground Railroad that had freed so many people.
Station-master Jermain Loguen, who was born in slavery,
Had escaped to our city to share this work, a man of bravery.
Now, Daniel Webster was mighty sore when he came to our fair city,
He had come with words all wrapped in chains and he spoke them without pity.
Saying “Even here in Syracuse, in abolition’s nest,
To capture each fugitive slave and send them back shall be our quest.”
The Liberty Party was meeting here on the first day of October.
So the marshals thought they would snatch a man and claim he had an owner.
William Henry was a cooper, “Jerry” was the name he used.
“Now, we’ve got you over a barrel, boy,” a marshal said, amused.
Who Rescued Jerry in the Great Central Depot?
It was the heads and the hearts and the hopes and the hands of the great central people!
When folks saw Jerry dragged through the streets for the crime of being a man,
Their hearts went ablaze for the true crime here they had come to understand.
For there never was a slave born, though many have been enslaved.
Now here was an innocent man they swore must certainly be saved.
Soon, twenty-five hundred swarmed like bees ‘round his jail at Raynor Block.
And the thing they did would bring hope to many a body under lock.
Swing the batt’ring ram again, sir,” said Sam Ward to Samuel May.
Heard a big heave-ho and a splintering as the jailhouse door gave way.
Mister J. M. Clappe, a man of iron, led the way into the room,
And he found those marshals with Jerry in irons and they heard a pistol boom.
Marshals shuddered at the great throng in the angry streets below.
And the rescue was made though none had even struck a single blow.
The people hid Jerry for several days until a way was found
For him to escape the northern way and then he was Canada bound.
Thirty-five were charged with aiding; twenty-six of those were tried.
Ward, Loguen, and others to Canada fled until the witch-hunt died.
We’ve come again to a time when folks fear to lose their hard-won freedom,
And we must be prepared to act and defend our friends from those who’d seize them.
For the ones some call unwelcome are worthy as you or me.
Each one has a life and a dream and we will make them sanctuary.
Many who love as they feel called are now targeted for harm.
And people disabled have much to fear as a president flaps his arm.
We must summon up our power, reaching everyone we meet.
We must stand together and lock our arms and love without retreat.
Who will rescue “Jerry” in the times that are to come?
Will be the heads and the hearts and the hopes and the hands of the ones who love freedom.
Words and music by Michael Messina-Yauchzy, ©2017
Reflecting on the Legacy of the Jerry Rescue Michael Messina-Yauchzy, October 1, 2023
These reflections come in two parts. And, right up front I want to thank Paul Barfoot for
conversations and resources that contributed to them.
Part One: We don’t want to present just a monolithic, feel-good view of the Jerry Rescue
A well-known Black journalist of Syracuse commented on my Facebook event for today’s
service, saying that the Jerry Rescue is not what it appears to be. He said, “It’s not like they
asked ‘Jerry’ to stay. We were not the bastion of equal rights…. This was not and is not that
safe haven that’s been put forward. The monument makes white people feel good. This place
was Hell for Black people…. Syracuse has not been hospitable to the Black community, ever.
That’s one of the reasons we have such poor conditions.”
There is also a viewpoint saying that white abolitionist leaders of Central New York used the
Jerry Rescue to gain political advantage within the movement, furthering their own gradualist
views over more radical ones. And we know what Langston Hughes said about “a dream
deferred,” what Martin Luther King Jr. said about “waiting patiently.”
Recently, I was reading in a newspaper archive local articles about the Jerry Rescue going back
to the 1850s. They were not all positive. Some were derogatory, ridiculing, racist accounts of
those events and what followed. Those who gathered in the Jerry Rescue may have been 10%
of the population, a remarkable turnout by any day’s standards. But, they were not the
In the years following the Jerry Rescue, an annual celebration of the event was held, attended
by such leading Black and white abolitionists as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.
Speeches were made and debates over philosophy and strategy took place. But in 1859, Gerritt
Smith, one of the leading Central New York abolitionists, who had played an important role in
the Rescue, wrote to decline an invitation to speak at that year’s celebration. He said, “The
Rescue of Jerry was a great and glorious event. Would God it had been duly improved! But
those who achieved it, and I include in this number all who cheered it on and rejoiced in every
step of its progress, have, with few exceptions, proved themselves unworthy of the work of
their own hands. … Oh, had the thousands, who on that memorable night crowded the streets
of Syracuse, but maintained the sublime elevation to which the spirit of that night exalted
them. what a force for the overthrow of slavery would they not have accumulated by this time!
But they soon fell from it. They soon sunk down to the low level of their political and church
parties. Jerry was forgotten. Their humanity was dead.” Eight years after the Jerry Rescue,
Smith was so disappointed with the lack of effort in opposition to slavery in Central New York
that he refused to celebrate that event.
Today in Syracuse, it is a sore spot that no African Americans were involved in the creation or
installation of the Jerry Rescue monument. It is a stain on that monument.
We have to acknowledge these things. Greater Syracuse is today one of the most segregated
and unequal metropolitan areas in the country, by housing, schooling, health care, and
economic disparity. As I said to the local Black journalist, “No, we should not try to pretend we
were or are a haven. It’s ludicrous. What can we do, but listen to each other, call out injustice,
steer our resources towards needs, and try to make things better?”
In 1851, a large number of white citizens were outraged at the dire predicament of a local Black
man. I believe we can celebrate that those 2,500 citizens of Syracuse stormed the jail for justice
even if they were in the minority, perhaps even because they were.
And, we need to put that into the context of a history of racial injustice that was present here
at that time and continues to this day.
Part Two: What, in the 21st Century, do we see as calling us to radically defy injustice?
My dear friend, Aly Wane, the undocumented Black activist and all-around wonderful
person—who has courageously risked everything to declare himself publicly in the face of
authority—is here this morning. If Aly were detained by Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (ICE), would I lay my body down to prevent his transfer to a cell, his deportation
from the uneasy but dear home he has had for nearly all his life? I like to think I would.
My dear friend, Annegret Schubert of SIRDN, the Syracuse Immigrant and Refugee Defense
Network, works to deliver food, give transportation, and find all kinds of legal, economic,
linguistic, medical, and housing solutions for undocumented people. A colleague of hers there
told me just Friday that Annegret works like staff, but without the pay. There is risk involved.
Possible penalties for harboring or assisting undocumented immigrants include imprisonment
My dear friend, the late Peter Swords, in 2018, along with Sheila Sicilia, Katie Barrett, Brian
Escobar, and others, blockaded ICE offices in Syracuse, accusing ICE of kidnapping and
deporting residents in violation of human decency. Ten were arrested.
Local community members like Nancy Gwin, Ed Kinane, the late Rae Kramer, and the late Rev.
Nick Cardell, pastor emeritus of May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society, went to jail or
prison for defying authority by trespassing onto sites of warmongering. Could I do that?
Honestly, I think that would be very hard for me.
I’m proud to know all these people I’ve named so far. They are today’s equivalent of Jerry’s
liberators. They are among us. They could be us; we could be them.
Cliff Ryan of OGs Against Violence walks the streets of Syracuse, intervening in disputes and
potential conflicts that could lead to gunshots and death, caused by social disparity and
hopelessness. We have seen the local Black leaders of Black Lives Matter and the National
Action Network march against racial injustice, and some of us have marched with them.
What are other areas of injustice that could call on us to take direct action? [Transgender Lives,
Climate Change, Environmental Racism, Reproductive Injustice, Housing Inequality….]
What are we willing to do? Not every action to fight injustice entails great risk. Some, like our
friends at Alliance for a Green Economy, AGREE, slog away every day to help us convert from
fossil fuels to sustainable and safe energy. Our friends at Cooperative Federal Credit Union
work daily to bring financial empowerment to local, underserved populations and what is now a
largely non-Anglo membership. Our friends at Vera House shelter and protect women,
children, and elders from culturally rooted violence and abuse, and more. The list could go on.
And these are mostly domestic issues—some friends, like Diane Swords (up here) and Carol
Baum have worked tirelessly for world peace, for decades, through the Syracuse Peace Council.
This is, admittedly, a biased list of mainly people I have been privileged to call friends. Others I
have not mentioned by name, I hope you know you are included here, too. But my point again
is this—the Jerry rescuers of today are among us, they could be us, we could be them.
How far are we willing to go for justice?
What does it mean for a choir of solely white members to sing an African American spiritual?
Hopefully, it means bringing a history and collective voice into the room that may not otherwise
be heard. The hymn, “Oh, Freedom” includes the words, “And before I’d be a slave, I’d be
buried in my grave.” Who am I, as a white male in the 21 st century, to sing those words? That
has always made me uncomfortable. But I sing them not to represent myself, but to represent
someone like William Henry, known as “Jerry.” Those could be his words, because Jerry was
not a passive figure only to be saved. First, he freed himself from enslavement, then he
established himself in Syracuse in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law, and on October 1 st 1851,
he actively fought and struggled to free himself, battered and bruised after escape and
recapture. William Henry fought for freedom and we celebrate him and others like him as we sing “Oh Freedom.”