Persons of Color
No Haven on Free Soil
Notify Any Person That Can Have Claim to Me to Come Forward
Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 made vulnerable not
only fugitive slaves hiding in Pennsylvania, but also free blacks
who had established their freedom through legal means, and even
those who had been born in Pennsylvania. Slave owners, or persons
working on their behalf, could now, without a warrant, immediately
seize any black person, haul them before a local judge or magistrate,
and with as little evidence as their oral testimony, or the written
deposition issued by a magistrate in their home state, haul that
person out of Pennsylvania and back to enslavement in their home
state, provided they proved their case to the local judge’s
also placed in legal and financial jeopardy, with the imposition of
a five hundred dollar fine and threat of possible civil action, any
person that stood in their way. As expected, southern slaveholders
immediately took advantage of the weakened protections in the north
by renewed efforts to recover long escaped slaves. Citizens of border
counties in Pennsylvania began to shy away from any contact with black
citizens that could be construed as “harboring” or providing
got so bad that some free blacks took extreme measures to establish
their unencumbered status, in the hopes of regaining a normal life.
John Hall was a free black man living in Montgomery County, Maryland,
before the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. He moved to the free soil
of Pennsylvania, settling in Warrington Township, York County, where
he sought and found gainful employment.
the passage of the new fugitive slave law, however, his fortunes changed.
Local whites refused to hire him because they feared accusations of
having provided shelter or comfort to someone who, as far as they knew,
might be a runaway slave. Shortly after passage of the law, Hall found
it necessary to try to prove his freedom by taking out an advertisement
in the local newspaper that challenged anyone who could do so, to lay
claim to him.
complained that he could not “get employ in any kind of labor
by reason of a doubt that has arisen in the minds of some people, touching
on my being free.” He therefore took the highly unusual and dangerous
step of inviting anyone who would do so to call him a slave, stating, “I
notify any person that can have claim to me to come forward.”62 The
presumption of bondage, despite earlier changes in the laws and slowly
changing moral attitudes, was still a loathsome burden that rested
upon Pennsylvania’s people of color.
there was now an even heavier burden to bear, thanks to the federal
government’s support for virtually unrestrained slave catching:
the fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South.
These were not, of course, new fears. The impetus for Pennsylvania’s
letter to Virginia, that initiated the series of events that ended
with passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, was a kidnapping, and
it was far from an isolated occurrence.
less ambiguous example from the same year is documented in the published Pennsylvania
Archives, dated 17 January 1791: “Transmitted case of Negro
Mary (who was supposed to have been kidnapped), from the Society for
the Abolition of Slavery, to the Attorney General for prosecution of
the offenders.” Mary was far from the first, however. Two years
earlier, an article in the Pennsylvania Gazette reported that
a ring of “hardened wretches” who kidnapped free blacks
and sold them in Georgia had been broken up. The kidnappers were found
with six “free Negroes” imprisoned on board a sloop at
Oxford, Maryland. Upon being questioned, it was determined that the
ring had been “long concerned” in this business, “having
last fall kidnapped a number of free negroes, whom they actually sold
were suddenly witnessing the beginning of a new and very dangerous
trend that would threaten African Americans all the way into New England:
the kidnapping of free African Americans by unscrupulous individuals
and even organized gangs of criminals. While slavery had always held
the threat of persons being forcibly torn from their families and sold
or carried far away, never to be heard from again, this new threat
extended that danger to people who had thought themselves no longer
vulnerable to such horrors. Highly disturbing reports of such incidents
in local newspapers showed that sense of safety to be illusory.
passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 only served to embolden kidnappers,
who stepped up their activities considerably after the United States
outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, making domestic slaves
all that much more valuable, and the kidnapping business more lucrative.
Moreover, their depredations began to extend into the interior counties
of Pennsylvania, as African American residents of Carlisle, York, Lancaster,
and Harrisburg were targeted.
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Herald and York General Advertiser, 27 March 1793.
Archives, 9th ser., 1791; Pennsylvania Gazette, 9 September