California Colored convention members block Stovall’s slave ship, free Lee with federal support, celebrate at Mary Pleasant’s home
In 1857, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Dred Scott decision that slaves or descendants of slaves could not be U.S. citizens and that, blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
That same year, an 18-year-old black man named Archy Lee made a very different kind of history in California. Lee had traveled overland from a Mississippi plantation with a man who claimed to own him, Charles Stovall. The trip was arduous and when they arrived, Stovall, low on funds and in frail health, hired Lee out for wages; Stovall opened a private school, and tried to attract pupils with an ad in the local paper.
California had entered the union as a free state, and delegates to the first state Constitutional Convention – after intense debate – unanimously outlawed slavery. But blacks could not vote, attended segregated schools and could not testify in court cases where whites were involved. Moreover, though slavery was prohibited, state law allowed slave holders who were “in transit” in California to maintain ownership of their slaves.
The black community began to organize around these injustices and formed the first civil rights group in the state, the California Colored Convention, in 1855.
When slave owner Stovall eventually decided he preferred life in Mississippi, Archy Lee refused to return to the plantation. Lee sought refuge in a Sacramento rooming house owned by free blacks. Stovall tracked him down and had him jailed. Immediately, one of the proprietors of the hotel challenged Lee’s detention – the case went all the way to the state supreme court.
But Lee was not to find justice there. In a twisted and disturbing ruling, the court recognized that Stovall was clearly not “in transit” — he had opened a school and even advertised it in the paper – but still ordered Lee’s return to Stovall because it was “the first case that has occurred under the existing law. . . . and under these circumstances we are not disposed to rigidly enforce the rule for the first time.”
Lee’s bid for freedom in a free state was thwarted.
But the men of the Colored Convention were not going to allow Lee to be forced back into slavery in Mississippi. Word had spread from Sacramento that Stovall was going to spirit Lee from the jail cell and force him on to a ship leaving San Francisco Bay. The men kept watch on the wharves. Stovall had hidden Lee on a small boat anchored off Angel Island, planning to transfer him in the dark of night to the eastbound ship.
But this time the slave owner was thwarted. As the ship approached Stovall was served with a warrant for holding a slave illegally. Lee was also taken into custody. The ship sailed towards Panama without them.
This time the men of the Colored Convention took the case before the U.S. Commissioner George Pen Johnston, who declared Archy Lee a free man. The former slave was carried off like a hero. The community held a victory celebration, and found a secure home for Lee at the fashionable boarding house of Marry Ellen Pleasant, an African American domestic and cook who became one of the wealthiest women in San Francisco. Pleasant not only fought for the liberation of slaves in California – the following year she helped finance John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.