There could not have been a dimmer time for human rights than March 1857, when the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote, “The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights and privileges and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen? One of which rights is the privilege fo suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution.”
Taney’s answer was no.
Yet, in less than eight years, that judgment was reversed by a series of constitutional amendments, following the Civil War.
One of the catalysts for that reversal was the case of Archy Lee, which resonates over more than a century and a half to offer some guidance for the present age.
Some may see the results of the November election as akin to the tensions leading to the secession of southern states into the Confederacy, or analagous to the period after the Compromise of 1876.
However, the track of the Underground Railroad which runs through California indicates that such reverses can be contested and successfully beaten through sound strategy, conviction and execution.
With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s launch occurring in 2011, the national theme for Black History Month is African-Americans and the Civil War.
We’re working with a host of organizations to reclaim the history of African-Americans from that period in California, because it is so important to the overall narrative of American heritage.
Above is an arrest warrant for Archy, a slave, by a U.S. Marshall in California. By the edict of the Supreme Court, Archy had no choice but to return to Mississippi, as C.A. Stovall had petitioned using the Fugitive Slave Act.
Underground Railroad operatives working through churches in Sacramento and San Francisco, founded in the early 1850s, and fraternal orders took Archy under their busoms, freeing him from captivity by force at least three times.
They hired Edward D. Baker, Abraham Lincoln’s best friend, and Edward Crocker, as his lawyers.
And less than a year after Dred Scott, Archy Lee was freed by a U.S. Commissioner.
National Park Ranger Guy Washington, western regional coordinator for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, provided these images of that case from the San Bruno center of the National Archives. He’ll participate in the Jan. 29 class at the National Maritime Museum, where we’ll discuss how black abolitionists actually had Archy Lee seized from a ship in the San Francisco Bay as an indication of how seriously they took their cause.
In churches and lodges and homes around the Bay, more signs of that history remain because at least five black organizations started in 1852 still exist.
More importantly, the cause of turning repression into freedom remains a priority.
It helps to explain how California’s election results were opposite of much of the remainder of the country. Precedents set 150 years ago still resonate.
The Archy Lee case files are among the primary sources which can be found in Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Experience in San Francisco, tenth edition.