State Bar memorializing 1847 slave raid ‘milestone’

Published 11:06 pm Friday, June 17, 2005

By By JOHN EBY / Dowagiac Daily News
CASSOPOLIS - "Crossroads to Freedom," Cass County's first Michigan Legal Milestone commemorating the Quakers, the Underground Railroad and the Kentucky slave raid of 1847 will be placed on the south lawn of the 1899 courthouse by state and county Bar Associations Aug. 16.
This will be the 30th bronze marker and will be situated along M-60 close to a big tree.
It will be delivered to Southwestern Michigan College for a dedication ceremony there before moving to the courthouse grounds for permanent installation, according to Naseem A. Stecker, State Bar of Michigan media and public relations manager.
Beginning in 1829, Penn, Calvin and Porter townships were settled by Quakers who migrated from Ohio and Indiana. Free blacks settled this same area.
Both groups lived and worked together in harmony.
They formed the backbone of the so-called Underground Railroad, a network of people who provided food, shelter, employment and assistance to those fleeing bondage on their way to freedom in Canada, where slavery was outlawed.
In August 1847, in one of the largest of several raids in Michigan, 20 to 30 heavily armed Kentucky men sought to recapture black men and women who escaped slavery.
The Kentuckians captured nine fugitives from four Quaker farms.
Free blacks and Quakers surrounded the raiders. Fourteen Kentuckians were arrested for assault and battery, kidnapping and trespass.
A Berrien court commissioner heard the case and released the escapees because the raiders could not produce a certified copy of the Kentucky statutes showing slavery was legal, although they did have a bill of sale.
The commissioner was later found not to have jurisdiction, but by then 45 fugitives, including the nine captured in the raid, had escaped to Canada.
Seven Quakers stood trial twice in U.S. District Court, where they were sued for the value of the escapees.
Both cases ended in hung juries, but the Quakers paid about $3,000 for damages and court costs in the final settlement.
Incidents such as this infuriated southern slave owners. They influenced Congress to adopt the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, making it easier to recover runaway slaves.
Michigan's Personal Liberty Act in 1855 neutralized the law. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified soon after the Civil War, abolished slavery in the United States.
The State Bar placed its first Legal Milestone May 2, 1986, in the lobby of the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit as part of Michigan's Law Day/Law Week celebration.
The series of tablets placed around the state honors important legal landmarks in Michigan history.
The first Legal Milestone honored the Ossian Sweet Trial, an historic race case which occurred after Dr. Ossian Sweet moved into an all-white Detroit neighborhood on Sept. 8, 1925.
After a confrontation with a mob outside the house, shots were fired from within and one man was left dead.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) came to the family's aid with famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow.
Judge Frank Murphy heard the case, in which the defense contended the crowd threatened to storm the house, and that a man had a right to defend his own home.
The prosecutor sought to show that there were no threats to the house and, as a matter of fact, no crowd outside. More than 50 prosecution witnesses testified there were only a few people there. Darrow told the jury there were enough witnesses alone "to make a mob."
Jurors deliberated 46 hours without reaching a verdict. The case was discharged. After new trials were ordered, Dr. Sweet's brother, Henry Sweet, was the only person tried. With his acquittal, charges against the remaining 10 were dropped.
Murphy's final comment was, "A man's home is his castle, and any man has the right to defend his home."
Three other Legal Milestones were placed in 1986: Grand Rapids (baseball reserve clause case in 1914), Marquette (Theodore Roosevelt libel trial against the Ishpeming Press in 1913 in which the former president prevailed as plaintiff, but was awarded 10 cents in damages) and Adrian (the first Thomas Cooley law office).
One marker, dedicated in 1988, is at Michigan's busiest canoe landing, on a boulder. A couple are in public parks. One went in the lobby of a Detroit hotel.
Marker 23, Conveying Michigan, recognizes that much of the land in southwest Michigan was conveyed out of the White Pigeon Land Office, built in 1831. It was dedicated on April 30, 1996, and placed inside the land office on the south side of U.S. 12 in downtown White Pigeon. The building became a museum operated by the St. Joseph County Historical Society.
The last marker, dedicated Sept. 20, 2004, at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, recognizes Michigan's only chief executive, the 38th President of the United States.
Prior to that was the Oct. 20, 2000, dedication in Battle Creek of a tribute to Mary Coleman, the first female Michigan Supreme Court Justice and Chief Justice.