In his highly praised biography of Frederick Douglass, historian David Blight offers this paragraph about a historic gathering of notable Black leaders at a convention in Syracuse, New York in 1864.
“Possibly no previous convention had drawn a list of African American luminaries of such diverse backgrounds and talents,” Blight notes. “Virtually every major Black religious, political, literary or community leader attended. For nearly four days, all manner of rivalries were largely checked at the door while such men as Henry Highland Garnet, William Wells Brown, George T. Downing, John Mercer Langston, Jermain Loguen, and others matched wits over the great issues of the war…” That war, of course, was the Civil War.
Two things are striking—the absence of any women and the presence of two men, George T. Downing and Jermain Loguen, who are lesser known among the elites. Both men are often cited in footnotes or in passing on the roles they played in the struggle for freedom and justice.
For this column, Loguen is the focus and perhaps later we can give Downing equal time.
Loguen was born Jarm Logue, the son of an enslaved woman, on Feb. 5, 1813 ,in Davidson County, Tennessee. At the age of 21, largely with the assistance of his mother, he escaped to Canada and later changed his name. After learning to read, he worked at a number of menial jobs in Canada and New York, while studying at the famed Oneida Institute.
When he at last settled in Syracuse, he opened a school and declared his home a refuge for fugitive slaves, a vital station on the Underground Railroad. Later he became an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church where he subsequently added Wesley as his middle name in tribute to John Wesley, the founder of the movement.
He was the Rev. Jermain Loguen when the infamous Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 and he became an ardent foe of the bill, promising to protect any runaway slave. No occasion captured his passionate commitment to this defense more than a meeting of citizens in Syracuse to discuss the recently passed Act.
Loguen, who later wrote a widely cited slave narrative, previewed his literary and oratorical skills during his speech at the meeting, some of which we include below: “I was a slave; I knew the dangers I was exposed to. I had made up my mind as to the course I was to take. On that score I needed no counsel, nor did the colored citizens generally. They had taken their stand—they would not be taken back to slavery. If to shoot down their assailants should forfeit their lives, such result was the least of the evil. They will have their liberties or die in their defense. What is life to me if I am to be a slave in Tennessee? My neighbors! I have lived with you many years, and you know me. My home is here, and my children were born here. I am bound to Syracuse by pecuniary interests, and social and family bonds. And do you think I can be taken away from you and from my wife and children, and be a slave in Tennessee?
“…Some kind and good friends advise me to quit my country, and stay in Canada, until this tempest is passed,” Loguen continued. “I doubt not the sincerity of such counselors. But my conviction is strong that their advice comes from a lack of knowledge of themselves and the case in hand. I believe that their own bosoms are charged to the brim with qualities that will smite to the earth the villains who may interfere to enslave any man in Syracuse.
“Those friends have not canvassed this subject. I have. They are called suddenly to look at it. I have looked at it steadily, calmly, resolutely and at length defiantly, for a long time. I tell you the people of Syracuse and of the whole North must meet this tyranny and crush it by force, or be crushed by it. This hellish enactment has precipitated the conclusion that white men must live in dishonorable submission, and colored men be slaves, or they must give their physical as well as intellectual powers to the defense of human rights. The time has come to change the tones of submission into tones of defiance…”
Loguen closed his speech, after assailing President Millard Fillmore, to thunderous applause. “I will not live a slave, and if force is employed to re-enslave me, I shall make preparations to meet the crisis as becomes a man. If you will stand by me—and I believe you will do it, for your freedom and honor are involved as well as mine—it requires no microscope to see that—I say if you will stand with us in resistance to this measure, you will be the saviors of your country. Your decision tonight in favor of resistance will give vent to the spirit of liberty, and it will break the bands of party, and shout for joy all over the North. Your example only is needed to be the type of popular action in Auburn, and Rochester and Utica and Buffalo and all the West, and eventually in the Atlantic cities. Heaven knows that this act of noble daring will break out somewhere—and may God grant that Syracuse be the honored spot, whence it shall send an earthquake voice through the land!”
The speech, part sermon and part exhortation against a heinous Act by Congress, personified the outspoken defiance, the pledge of resistance of Loguen’s anti-slavery commitment. In 1868, he was appointed a bishop and gained national popularity with his 1859 slave narrative. He was 59 when he died in 1872.