Jermain Wesley Loguen, the “Underground Railroad King” of Syracuse, NY

Jermain Wesley Loguen (1813 – 1872) was a fugitive slave from Tennesse who settled in New York, became a minister, abolitionist activist, and one of the nation’s most active agents of the Underground Railroad in Syracuse. Loguen is credited with aiding more than 1500 fugitive slaves and was dubbed the “Underground Railroad King”.

He was born on February 5, 1813, in Tennessee as Jarm Logue to an enslaved black woman named Cherry and her white master David Logue. As son of an enslaved mother, he inherited her status. When his father was about to lose his plantation, he sold Cherry and her children to his brother, who brutally beat them up every time he was drunk, and sold Jarm’s siblings. 1834, at age 21, Jarm learned that the free state of Illinois was close enough to get there on horseback. He stole his master’s horse, escaped – with his mother’s help – and followed the Underground Railroad to Canada.

In Canada, he changed his name, learned to read, and worked as a farm laborer. In 1836, he moved to Rochester, New York where he worked in a hotel as a porter, waiter, and servant. Through conversations with guests, he developed a deeper understanding of politics, slavery, and freedom. 1837, he decided to further his education and started to attend Beriah Green‘s Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, near Utica, New York.

1939 he became minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church (he took his middle name after John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement). 1840 he started a Sunday school for black children in Utica and married Caroline E. Storum, a biracial woman from a free, abolitionist family, with whom he had six children. He spent the next years preaching in several Upstate NY communities, holding antislavery lectures, and teaching.

After the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted in 1850, putting him at risk of being captured and re-enslaved, he moved to Syracuse close to the Canadian border, where he had bought ground in 1848 to build a school. In Syracuse, he started to work with reformer and abolitionist pastor Samuel Joseph May in his endeavor of aiding fugitive slaves. During a public meeting on October 4, 1850, held at the city hall of Syracuse to discuss the Fugitive Slave Law, Loguen held a speech to convince his fellow citizens to resist the law and protect him and other former slaves. A vote was taken, and Syracuse was declared an “open city” for fugitive slaves with 395 vs 96 votes.

Now, you are assembled here, the strength of this city is here to express their sense of this fugitive act, and to proclaim to the despots at Washington whether it shall be enforced here—whether you will permit the government to return me and other fugitives who have sought asylum among you, to the Hell of slavery. The question is with you. If you will give us up, say so, and we will shake the dust from our feet and leave you. But we believe better things […] Whatever may be your decision, my ground is taken. I have declared it everywhere. It is known over the state and out of the state—over the line in the North, and over the line in the South. I don’t respect this law—I don’t fear it—I won’t obey it! It outlaws me, and I outlaw it, and the men who attempt to enforce it on me.

Excerpt from Jermain W. Loguen s Speech “Won’t Obey the Fugitive Slave Law“, Ocober 4, 1850

Jermain and Carolyn Loguen’s house became a principal Underground Railroad depot. They built special accommodations to provide shelter to runaways on their way freedom. It is estimated that about 1,500 freedom seekers passed through their home.

The most famous case in which Loguen was involved was the Jerry Rescue. William Henry (called Jerry) was a runaway slave who was arrested on October 1, 1851. The anti-slavery Liberty Party happened to hold a convention in Syracuse, and hundreds of abolitionists broke into the city jail, rescued him, and helped him to escape to Canada. Loguen, who was part of the committee planning the rescue, was accused of assaulting a federal marshal and inciting violence, which he denied. In order to avoid arrest and re-enslavement, he fled to Canada (as did others involved in the Jerry Rescue), but returned after a few months in spring 1852, when he felt that he would be safe in Syracuse.

Upon return, Loguen started to conduct his Underground Railroad activities very publicly. His station was the most openly operated one in the state, maybe the nation. He published his activities and spendings in newspapers, advertised his address inviting fugitive slaves, and asked for donations. Jermain became a widely popular anti-slavery speaker who lectured alongside Frederick Douglass and worked with Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison, William Wells Brown, and other prominent abolitionists.

1859 Jermain Loguen published his autobiography The Rev. J. W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman, a Narrative of Real Life. The following year, the wife of his former master wrote him and demanded $1,000 compensation for the horse he stole 26 years earlier, implying to send slavecatchers to get him otherwise. His response to her was published in the Liberator.

Did you think to terrify me by presenting the alternative to give my money to you, or give my body to Slavery? Then let me say to you, that I meet the proposition with unutterable scorn and contempt. The proposition is an outrage and an insult. I will not budge one hair’s breadth. I will not breathe a shorter breath, even to save me from your persecutions. I stand among a free people, who, I thank God, sympathize with my rights, and the rights of mankind; and if your emissaries and venders come here to re-enslave me, and escape the unshrinking vigor of my own right arm, I trust my strong and brave friends, in this City and State, will be my rescuers and avengers.

Excerpt from Jermain W. Loguen’s letter to Sarah Logue, March 28, 1860

After the Civil War, Loguen continued his clerical work, and in 1868, he was appointed bishop of the AMEZ conferences in Alleghany and Kentucky. In 1872 he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis and moved to Saratoga Springs hoping for a cure at the mineral springs but died there on September 20, 1872, aged 59.

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