The story of how residents of Ottawa, Illinois, helped a fugitive slave escape to freedom marks a transitional phase in the state’s history, experts say, but has been largely forgotten.
Historians hope that changes on Monday – July 4 – when they will explain the story during the dedication of a historic marker outside the Ottawa courthouse.
According to research by the Illinois State Historical Society, Jim Gray was one of three enslaved people who escaped from owner Richard Phillips in 1859 near New Madrid, Missouri.
Gray was arrested in Union County, Illinois, and taken to Ottawa for trial. He arrived at the train station with his arms and legs chained and a rope around his neck. A crowd gathered at the station, where Scottish immigrant and grain merchant John Hossack asked, ‘What crime has he committed? Has he done anything but want to be free?”
Hundreds of spectators gathered at the courthouse the next day. Gray was ordered to appear before a US commissioner for a hearing under the Fugitive Slave Law, which would likely mean returning to slavery.
According to a plan devised by local abolitionists and led in part by Hossack, several men detained the American Marshal holding the prisoner, and Gray broke free. Hassock led Gray out of the building, while the crowd stopped the Marshal from chasing.
Outside, Gray jumped the fence and hopped into a waiting carriage. Despite an attempt to stop the team of horses, the carriage raced out of town to Canada and freedom under British law.
Hossack and several others were arrested and taken to Chicago for trial. They were held in the prison, where crowds of supporters visited them. Hossack was found guilty and sentenced to 10 days in prison and a $10 fine, but his speech in court was published as a tract against slavery. After his release, he and his co-conspirators were escorted around town and treated like celebrities.
At the time, the Illinois Constitution barred blacks from moving to the state without a certificate of liberty, and the “black laws” prevented them from voting or having other basic rights.
After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slave catchers abducted black people even if they had certificates of freedom.
Hossack’s mansion, which still stands on a cliff in Ottawa, was a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves, and Chicago was a terminus, where blacks could open businesses or find work, according to the Chicago History Museum.
The Illinois State Historical Society offers grants to help pay for such markers, which cost about $5,000 and are made of cast aluminum. Board member Chuck Stanley, who lives in Ottawa and helped lead the effort, said few people know about Jim Gray’s story, meaning the marker will inform visitors about what happened.
“It was a dramatic event for abolitionists to take a prisoner of a US Marshal into a courthouse and set him free,” he said.
The incident contrasted sharply with the vigilante lynchings of blacks at the time.
According to the court transcript, Gray was born to enslaved parents in Missouri, but sold at age 5. What happened to Gray after his escape to Canada remains a mystery.
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While Gray’s thoughts remain secret, “We only know that when he got a chance to run, he did,” wrote Christopher Schnell, director of manuscripts at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.
Gray’s escape came at a turning point in American history, as pro- and anti-slavery views clashed in Illinois and across the country, Schnell said. In general, Schnell said, “Illinois was not a friendly place for enslaved people or freed black people.”
Abolitionists like Hossack were considered extremists, but his support in Chicago indicates he wasn’t alone.
To put the time in context, the break came two years after the US Supreme Court denied citizenship to all black people in the Dred Scott case.
It came just a year after the first debate, held in Ottawa, between future President Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen Douglas, on slavery, and less than two years before the start of the Civil War.
Despite popular support for exclusion laws, Stanley said, Jim Gray’s escape “shows how strong the sentiment has been for the abolition of the death penalty in northern Illinois.”
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Robert Carter, who lives in Ottawa, will inaugurate the memorial, and former Mayor Robert Eschbach will speak. The Ottawa Historic Preservation Commission, the La Salle County Bar Association, and the William G. Pomeroy Foundation also sponsored the effort.