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  • Writer's pictureLinda A Cowdrick

The Emancipation of James Hamlet

In 1850, the N.Y Journal of Commerce raised $3,900 to emancipate 40 slaves, 39 of which were sent to Liberia.

James Hamlet, was born in Maryland, 1825, as James Hamilton Williams. He worked as a porter for the Tilton and Maloney firm. He was also one of the enslaved men emancipated (for $800!) by the N.Y. Journal of Commerce in 1850 and the one slave that stayed in the United States. James Hallet was arrested in New York City charged as a fugitive by his owner Mrs. Mary Brown of Baltimore. James pleaded his liberty and stated his mother was free and therefore he was a free man.

This story caught the attention of a lot of people, especially in the north because the surrender of fugitive slaves was not enforced in the northern states. James Hallet was described as a respectable man and a member of the Methodist Church. After his surrender began a movement and the raising of funds to liberate him.

Fugitive Slave Law - Hamlet in Chains, New York Atlas, 13 October 1850.

Note that it is unlikely that James was arrested in a loincloth as depicted in the above image. He worked for a reputable firm and likely wore nice clothing. He was also a "mulatto" which means his skin was likely lighter than depicted.

After the $800 was raised, Mr. John H. Woodgate of Richmond, VA personally went to Baltimore to bring James Hallet back to Williamsburg where his wife, Harriet and 3 children (Catherine, Elijah and Alvord) lived.

The 1850 Williamsburg, NY Census showing James living with his mother, Francis, and his wife and children.

James Hallet's story caused quite a stir. He was the first person arrested under the New Fugitive Slave Law - a law that was not popularly accepted everywhere. His story ran in the papers across most of the United States. It is a story of protest, as there was such a movement under the direction of The Committee of Thirteen at the Mother Zion Church in New York City with a crowd of almost 2,000. It is a story of emancipation. However, it is also a story of purchased freedom. Regardless, it was a step. A necessary step in the many that would follow to bring us here today on Juneteenth.

After James Hamlet was freed, The Committee of Thirteen continued their efforts with the Underground Railroad.

James and Harriet remained in Brooklyn and continued to grow their family.

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