The Lemmon Slave Case


The Lemmon Case: 1852-1860 — A Prelude to the Civil War

The film deals with the history of slavery in New York State and the critical role New York courts played in freeing eight enslaved young women and children who sailed into New York harbor with their owners from the South, a ruling that was in direct conflict with the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision. This film on the New York Lemmon Slave Case and its aftermath is narrated by Mr. James Earl Jones and features an introduction by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

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July 1827

Due to a law passed in 1817, all enslaved people in New York State were freed on July 4, 1827.

September 1850

Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required enslaved people to be returned to slaveholders, even if the formerly enslaved were in a free state. 

November 1852

In November 1852, the Lemmons traveled into New York State with their slaves. In that same month, Judge Elijah Paine of the Superior Court rules that the enslaved people brought into the State by the Lemmons were free under New York’s laws.

March 1857

The U.S. Supreme Court decides Dred Scott v. Sandford, ruling that Black Americans, free or enslaved, were not citizens and therefore the rights of the Constitution did not apply.

December 1857

The New York Supreme Court affirms Judge Paine’s decision. In New York, the State Supreme Court is an intermediate appellate court. 

March 1860

The New York Court of Appeals affirms the lower court decisions, 5-3, freeing the enslaved people. The Court of Appeals is the highest court in New York State.

April 1861

Virginia secedes from the Union, thus ending the possibility of appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. 




  • Lemmon Slave Case Travelling Exhibit
  • Lemmon Slave Case Travelling Exhibit
  • Lemmon Slave Case Travelling Exhibit
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