Sent to jail for challenging slavery

May 21, 2010

The campaign to win posthumous pardons for imprisoned abolitionists reminds us that unjust laws must be challenged and broken to win justice.

OUR NATION was founded on slavery, the brutalization of millions of Africans brought forcefully to this country and subjected to obscene cruelties.

Yet from the beginning of slavery, slaves themselves and others who opposed their oppression resisted the institution of slavery and sought its abolition.

A powerful movement to abolish slavery ultimately carried the day, though the battle against de facto forms of slavery, as well as what many working people understood as "wage slavery," continued long after the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were passed.

The abolitionist movement included men and women, whites and Blacks, slaves, former slaves and people born free, people whose names we know today, like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and John Brown, and many others anonymous, obscure or unknown.

In focusing on President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (which actually did not end slavery), all too often, our schools and media downplay the role of the many ordinary people who achieved this historic victory. And few recall the enormous sacrifices they made.

Some historians in Kentucky are now trying to set the record straight, seeking posthumous pardons for 44 people from the state who were convicted for trying to help slaves escape their bondage.

As John Cheves reported in the Lexington Herald-Leader: "In the 19th century, Kentucky convicted at least 58 people for 'seducing or enticing slaves to leave their lawful owners.' Defendants faced 20 years in the Kentucky State Penitentiary, where some died."

In a paper titled "Into the Fiery Furnace: Anti-Slavery Prisoners in the Kentucky State Penitentiary 1844-1870," retired state archivist and historian James Prichard recounts how:

Over eight of these forgotten heroes died during their confinement. Incredible as it sounds, the last anti-slavery prisoner did not leave his cell until 1870--over five years after slavery was swept from the land.

One woman, Julett Miles of Bracken County, was sentenced to a "three-year term for the 'crime' of 'stealing' her own children," writes Prichard.

As Prichard notes, all of the prosecuted Kentuckians "should be remembered as casualties in the anti-slavery struggle. Their story forms the heart and soul of the legacy of the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery struggle in Kentucky."

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The campaign Prichard has initiated in Kentucky is a model for other states--North and South--that prosecuted abolitionists, as well as those charged under federal laws, such as the Fugitive Slave Act.

The campaign also reminds us that unjust laws--like the one today seeking to criminalize undocumented immigrants and "suspected" immigrants in Arizona, or prosecuting soldiers who refuse to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan--must be challenged and broken, just like the people Prichard has rescued from obscurity had to fight against the laws of their own day to win emancipation.

It's a lesson we cannot afford to forget.

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