Published Oct. 01, 1997, in The Post-Standard.
"Fellow citizens! We are here in the most extraordinary circumstances," ex-slave Samuel Ward, the man Frederick Douglas called "the ablest man the country has ever produced," told a gathering at Clinton Square 146 years ago today. "We are witnessing such a sight as, I pray, we may never look upon again. A man in chains, in Syracuse! ...
"We have arrested him, confined him and chained him on purpose to inflict upon him the curses of slavery. They say he is a slave. What a term to apply to an American! How does this sound beneath the pole of liberty and the flag of freedom?
Ward told the residents they were responsible, in part, for the existence of the Fugitive Slave Law because they elected the men who made it law. He asked the crowd: "Do you promise, so help you God, so to vote, as that your sanction never more shall be given to laws which empower persons to hunt, chain and cage men in our midst?"
With that, the crowd broke into the jail and forced the marshals to free William "Jerry" Henry, who eventually made his way to Canada.
The event became known as the Jerry Rescue, which today has a monument at Clinton and James Streets in commemoration.
Think that's a story worth retelling, year after year, so that adults and children alike never forget a shameful yet triumphant day in this city's history? If so, you are not alone, because a community celebration will commemorate the 146th anniversary of the Jerry Rescue at noon today at the monument.
The message: Standing up in unison can make injustices fall. From that day onward, no African-American from the region was sent back to slavery.
Where Syracusans gathered in Clinton Square on Oct. 1, 1851, to cheer the freedom of a fugitive slave, they will gather again. They will lay a wreath at the site and tour the rescue area and the Onondaga Historical Association's Jerry Rescue display. It includes the chain links that shackled Henry to his cell, a portrait of the Rev. Samuel May and an engraved portrait of the Rev. Jermain Loguen, who each helped organize Henry's escape.
"We don't have a moral foundation if we don't fight racism," said the Rev. Scott Smith-Tayler of the May Memorial Unitarian-Universalist Society, describing the lesson of the Rescue. "We can't talk about being a community without confronting racism."
That's true at its most blatant levels and its most subtle, institutional levels as well. It's a war that cannot be won in a day. But, as the Jerry Rescue proved, one of its battles can.