by Maximilian Eyle
In October of 1851, roughly 2,500 Syracuse citizens came together in the city’s downtown. With a battering ram, they broke down the door to the jail and successfully freed a man called William “Jerry” Henry. Jerry had escaped from slavery years before and started a new life as a barrel maker in Upstate New York. He would have been sent back to a life of slavery, but Syracuse residents stepped in and secured his freedom. Jerry was immediately sent north to Canada where he was safe from arrest. This event is remembered as the “Jerry Rescue”, and is one of the proudest moments in Syracuse’s history.
At that time, the United States was divided into states with slavery, and those without. In 1850, a federal law known as the Fugitive Slave Act was passed which required that states without slavery help capture and return any escaped slaves. Jerry was arrested under this new law and put in jail. This caused tremendous outrage among the locals. Abolitionist Samuel Ringold Ward expressed his disgust at a public meeting prior to the Rescue, stating: “We are witnessing such a sight as, I pray, we may never look upon again. A man in chains, in Syracuse!”
The story of the Jerry Rescue has the advantages of being both legendary and true. It speaks to the power of a united local community pushing back in the face of an overzealous federal government enforcing an unjust law. The Civil War may still have been ten years away, but protests like this helped hasten the end of slavery. Today, we see similar local resistance as Syracuse refuses to use its police to search for or detain illegal immigrants despite federal pressure to do so. As we look to the future, we should remember the progress that can be made when Syracuse stands as a united and independent city.
Maximilian Eyle is a native of Syracuse, NY and a graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He works as a media consultant and writes each month about a variety of issues for Spanish-language papers across New York State. Maximilian has a love of Hispanic culture and learned Spanish while living in Spain where he studied and worked as an English teacher. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.