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The Story of the Runaway Slave That Helped End the Fugitive Slave Act

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 14, 2023 3:02 am

The Story of the Runaway Slave That Helped End the Fugitive Slave Act

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 14, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the Fugitive Slave Act made all Americans accomplices in the practice of slavery. This story marks the beginning of its end. 

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Take it away Elliot. In the heart of Philadelphia, a runaway mother desperately held her infant son close as she matched wits with a ruthless slave catcher. The mother, born Betsy Galloway, escaped from her enslavement in Maryland in 1845 with the help of a free man named William Thompson. Galloway soon married Thompson, changed her name to Catherine Thompson, and eventually settled in Burlington County, New Jersey where she gave birth to a son, Joel, in 1847. The Thompson family lived in relative safety in New Jersey, though the thought of her prior enslavement must have haunted her, for black Americans across the North often fell prey to determined enslavers, ruthless kidnappers, and unflinching slave catchers.

Catherine Thompson was far from safe. Two years later, a black man named James Frisbee Price appeared at the Thompsons' doorstep, claiming that he was a lost hunter. Taking pity on the man, the Thompsons welcomed him into their home and made fast friends with Price. A few weeks later, Catherine Thompson received an invitation from Price to visit him and his wife in Philadelphia.

She obliged and brought her infant son, Joel, with her to meet them. But when she arrived at the Price household, she realized Price's ruse and found herself face to face with the notorious slave catcher, Philadelphian George Alberti Jr. Black Americans like Catherine Thompson faced a precarious freedom living in the antebellum North. Despite its history of abolitionism, including passing the nation's first gradual emancipation act, the forces of slavery still lurked across the state of Pennsylvania, especially in the city of Philadelphia. Labeled as, quote, the most northern of southern cities by one historian, Philadelphia hosted street battles over slavery throughout the 19th century. These battles took many forms, from fugitive slave rescues and the kidnapping of free black Americans to vicious riots that led to the wanton destruction of black Philadelphia. Conflicts at the street level in Philadelphia became inextricably fused to state and national politics, as politicians' ability to classify enslaved black Americans both as property and as human beings represented a fundamental tension throughout the United States. The tension stemmed from the 1793 Federal Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed enslavers and slave catchers to pursue fugitives from slavery across state lines. Compounding this issue, states like Pennsylvania passed legislation that not only promoted freedom, such as their 1780 Gradual Emancipation Act, but also sought to protect free blacks against kidnappers masquerading as, quote, legal slaveholders. Ordinary black and white abolitionists protected black Americans by practicing what I call street diplomacy, the up-close contests over freedom and slavery at the local level in Philadelphia that influenced politics and politicians at the state and national levels. The kidnappings of free blacks, as well as fugitive slave retrievals, led street diplomats to pressure Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass liberty laws, which were pieces of state legislation designed to protect black Americans. Not only did these laws reflect the intertwined realities of blacks fleeing Southern slavery and the kidnapping of free blacks throughout the North, but these laws also revealed how some Americans, namely black and white abolitionists, strive to live up to the promises enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

While most of these cases began on the streets of Philadelphia, all of them involved high-profile politicians, from governors to members of Congress to Supreme Court justices. These struggles in Pennsylvania brought to light the illusory nature of borders between the free and the slave states, as well as the inherent tension over freedom and slavery that eventually led to the Civil War. To the chagrin of slaveholders, by 1850 a slew of Northern states followed Pennsylvania's lead and enacted their own liberty laws. Southerners believed they possessed the right to track and capture black Americans throughout the Union and viewed Northern states' liberty laws as a threat to maintaining peaceful relationships within the Union.

The rise of aggressive abolitionism and the national celebrity of black Americans like Frederick Douglass, as well as the ongoing public successes of the Underground Railroad further exacerbated slaveholders' patience. Southern enslavers, and some of their Northern colleagues, believed that only federal legislation could solve the fugitive slave crisis, protect slave state interests, and save the Union. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act fully immersed the federal government in the process of retrieving fugitives from slavery. Enslavers and slave catchers could now enlist the help of U.S. Marshals to retrieve fugitives from slavery anywhere in the Union. Federal commissioners and judges now possessed the authority to issue warrants to remove black Americans being accused of runaways. This federal slave catching policy overrode Northern state officials bound by either personal conviction or state law to refuse to become involved in fugitive slave cases.

Furthermore, slaveholders' testimonies would be valid while the accused could not testify at all. If the court ruled in favor of the enslaver, they then had the power to request that U.S. Marshals hired as many people as necessary to bring the enslaved person back South. Most importantly, anyone who interfered with the arrest of an accused fugitive faced a fine of $1,000 and up to six months in jail.

In short, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act made all Americans, whether Northern, Southern, white, black, male, or female, responsible for assisting slaveholders in their pursuit of fugitives from slavery. Returning to Katherine Thompson's case, here we witness how she acted as a street diplomat in a high-stakes game of life and death. Slapping handcuffs on her, Alberti demanded that she leave Joel with the prices in Philadelphia and that she come with him back to slavery in Maryland. Katherine Thompson bravely refused Alberti's request and clung tightly to her child.

As a mother, she would not surrender her son. Yet as a street diplomat, she also knew that Alberti would be charged as a kidnapper under Pennsylvania law if he brought them both back to Maryland, for Joel was indeed born free in New Jersey. Although a slave catcher posing as an abolitionist tried to convince her otherwise, and even after enduring a savage beating from Alberti, Thompson would not let go of her child.

Alberti relented and agreed to bring Joel to Maryland too, but not to avoid separating a mother from her child. Instead, Alberti adopted the heartless logical and legal realities created by slaveholders and their pro-slavery allies, namely that the condition of slavery followed the mother. Since Joel was the product of a runaway slave, Alberti reasoned that both he and his mother could be legally kidnapped and re-enslaved down South.

And that's exactly what he did. Alberti brought them back to Maryland, where Thompson's former enslaver sold them further South, never to be heard from again. But that is not the end of the story. Black and white street diplomats, many of whom acted as agents and conductors of the Underground Railroad, convinced Pennsylvania officials to press charges against Alberti and Price for kidnapping Joel, but not his mother. You might ask, why weren't they charged for kidnapping Catherine Thompson?

Here's the tragic answer. Catherine Thompson was a runaway, and therefore the slave catchers were within their legal rights to bring her back to her enslaver. After a lengthy, gripping trial, the jury found Alberti and Price guilty of kidnapping Joel and sentenced them to prison at the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary.

In a cruel twist of fate, the newly elected Democratic governor William Bigler of Pennsylvania pardoned the pair the next year, and both Alberti and Price returned to plying their grim trade on the streets of Philadelphia. The case of Catherine Thompson and her infant son Joel was one in a plethora of similar events that exploded across the North prior to the Civil War. Confronted by such cases, white Americans soon began to chafe over the inhumanity of slavery and the inhumanity of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which charged all Americans with aiding in the return of runaways. This aid meant ripping families apart, inflicting violence on the innocent, and condemning their fellow Americans to perpetual servitude, each human being lost to slavery. The efforts of black and white abolitionists to expose the true nature of aiding the forces of slavery in all of its gut-wrenching intricacies eventually bore fruit. In time, Americans increasingly rejected being beholden to slaveholders who hoped to spread slavery and not freedom across the nation.

Northerners elected a president in 1860 who refused to accept the expansion of slavery as the true mission of the United States. The Civil War reflected the culmination of street diplomacy, the efforts of black and white Americans who worked together to destroy slavery and bring about a more perfect union. And a terrific job on the editing, production, and storytelling by our own Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Elliot Drago, who's the Jack Miller Center's editorial officer and historian. The Jack Miller Center is a nationwide network of scholars and teachers dedicated to educating the next generation about America's founding principles and our history. To learn more, visit And we got a lesson in American history and the Fugitive Slave Act making all Americans accomplices in the sin of slavery. And of course, the abolition movement, the original civil rights movement, would culminate in the Civil War.

The story of Katherine Thompson here on Our American Stories. Are you the kind of student who's all in until lights out? Then you're going to love this best in class soundbar deal. The Vizio V-Series all-in-one soundbar is now on sale for just $99. Whether you're blasting your favorite tracks or podcasts on the iHeartRadio app or taking your TV's audio to the next level, you can do it all for less than $100 with Vizio, America's number one soundbar brand.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-14 04:38:43 / 2023-08-14 04:43:43 / 5

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