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The Joseph Belt Case’s Impact on NYC’s on Black Residents, 1848

“The case has caused a great deal of excitement among the colored population, the Court room and the avenues being densely crowded…” This was the reportage in New York City’s Morning Courier on December 27, 1848 concerning the case of alleged fugitive slave from Maryland, Joseph Belt, before State Supreme Court Judge, John W. Edmonds, at City Hall. The case intensified African American sentiments so much that they held a meeting on Christmas night to record their concerns.

The case arose from the seizure of an alleged runaway slave beginning on December 20, and the quick action the same day by Judge Edmonds to prevent his forced departure. Judge Edmonds’ hearings began three days later in order to allow attorneys time to prepare. In Gateway To Freedom (2015), Eric Foner describes Belt’s chief attorney, John Jay II, as emerging “as the city’s leading lawyer in fugitive slave cases”(page 112). Jay’s studious arguments, and Edmonds’ sympathy for Belt, resulted in the defendant’s freedom on December 29. However, “the colored population” did more than pack Edmonds’ courtroom. They staged a rally, which has been a neglected aspect of the Belt case.

Led by a civil rights activist, Jeremiah Powers, a protest meeting was organized in Terence Hall on Church Street on December 25, no doubt due to the pressing nature of the case. As Chairman, Powers orchestrated the writing a five-part resolution that underscored their anger, as reported the next day in the New York Tribune. Section 1, for example, emphatically declares that the kidnapping of Belt “is an alarming outrage upon all the social and civil rights and guarantees of the citizens of New York.” Section 2 states that the case “affects the security of every colored man, woman, and child in the City.” Sections 3 and 5 refer to the principles “of the process of law” and ”due process” in any case like Belt’s. However, when these two legal principles are ignored, then Section 4 mandates that “no colored person ought to allow themselves to be arrested as a slave upon any conditions whatsoever: at the risk of life itself….they should deem it a question of life and death, to be settled on the spot….” This pointed language entails no reading between the lines.

Edmonds’ decision to free Belt sparked a display of deep relief that was covered across this State. On December 30, for instance, the Geneva Gazette, described the final scene as follows: “[Belt] was borne in triumph from the City Hall by a large company of colored people who rent the air with acclamations of joy,” and apparently left the City. Due to circumstances in New York City at the time, a black man was not enslaved, and freedom prevailed.

This article was originally published on 1/30/17 on NewYorkHistoryReview.com.

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