Once hailed as the “Underground Railroad King,” Jermain Wesley Loguen (1813-1872) helped over 1,500 freedom seekers escape from slavery. His Syracuse home was a known frequented stop on the road to freedom. These actions, as well as his fervent writings and speeches made him a prominent abolitionist. Importantly, his public refusal to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act, embodied the defiant sentiment of Black Americans of the time - free and enslaved. Loguen’s resistance to injustice symbolized the civil disobedience that characterized the Underground Railroad.
Claiming His Freedom
Jermain Wesley Loguen was born around 1814 in Tennessee, to an enslaved mother and her white enslaver, David Logue. Originally named Jarm Logue, he later added the "n" to his last name to differentiate himself from his enslaver father. He adopted the middle name "Wesley" to reflect his Wesleyan Methodist sympathies. When he was in his early twenties, Loguen escaped from slavery and fled to Canada. He eventually made his way to the state of New York where he studied, got married, and began a family. The Loguen family settled in Syracuse in 1841. Loguen taught school and became a licensed preacher of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church later becoming a Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
He was as much an abolitionist activist as a minister. Logeun’s skills as a passionate orator led to his popularity, as well as his fervent retelling of his personal experiences as a slave. At one public appearance, eschewing the pulpit, Loguen fell to his knees in front of the altar and “poured out the passion of his soul for the redemption” of the millions of his enslaved brothers and sisters. Lougen’s message was one of righteous justice and chilling prescience. “How long shall my poor brethren suffer?” Loguen, a much sought after orator, was one of the most significant abolitionists of the era working alongside Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, William Wells Brown, and William Lloyd Garrison, among others.
The Underground Railroad
Since the late 18th century, networks of people had been secretly aiding freedom seekers. After the passage of Fugitive Slave Acts (1793 and 1850), Vigilance Committees were created to protect freedom seekers from bounty hunters. These committees soon expanded their activities to guide freedom seekers “underground” using secret networks of people and places. By the 1840s, the term Underground Railroad was part of the American vernacular. Loguen assisted the Rev. Samuel J. May, a Unitarian clergyman in Syracuse, with his Underground Railroad work but gradually took the lead. Loguen placed letters in the Syracuse press openly discussing his activities and asking for donations to assist freedom seekers. He built apartments on his property to serve as hiding posts and lodging for freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. As stationmasters on the Underground Railroad, Loguen and his wife Caroline were two of its most active agents. Many historians agree that the Loguen’s own home was a widely known station on the Underground Railroad, and his basement was fitted with bunks and other equipment for freedom seekers.
Frederick Douglass, a frequent visitor to this house, described the Loguens’ welcome of nine people who arrived here from slavery:
“The night was exceedingly dark and the rain was very heavy. . . . The children were sick and the rain increasingly in violence, and the walk of a full mile-and-a-half before the pilgrims, and two of these are wholly unable to walk. . . . We had scarcely struck the door when the manly voice of Loguen reached our ear. He knew the meaning of the rap and sang out, “Hold on!” A light was struck in a moment. The door opened, and the whole company, the writer included, were invited to. Candles were lighted in different parts of the house, fires kindled and the whole company made perfectly at home. The reception was whole-souled and manly one, worthy of the noble reputation of brother Loguen.”
- Post-Standard, November 18, 1857
Perhaps the most celebrated case in which Loguen was involved took place on October 1, 1851. A freedom seeker by the name of William Henry was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Loguen joined a committee of abolitionists, Black and white, that rescued Henry (known as “Jerry”) and assisted him in escaping to Canada.
Defiance in the Face of Injustice
At the time, abolitionists raised money to purchase the freedom of some freedom seekers, providing them with documentation providing safety in the Fugitive Slave Act era. Loguen declined to ensure his safety by purchasing his freedom, or to allow others to purchase it for him, arguing that to do so would compromise his manhood and his "God-given gift of freedom." This public defiance risked his personal safety, but sent a powerful message to his allies and adversaries.
Logeun’s public resistance of slavery extended to civil disobedience. Not only did he defy law by his actions on the Underground Railroad, he openly petitioned others to do the same. A month after the infamous Fugitive Slave Act was passed, Loguen persuaded his adopted hometown, Syracuse, New York, to declare itself a refuge for freedom seekers. On October 4, 1850, the people of Syracuse filled city hall to hear a discussion of the recently passed law. Loguen knew firsthand the horrors of the institution of slavery and the immediate danger he faced by the passage of the new Act. He appealed to his fellow citizens to honor the Constitution by dishonoring the law that would reenslave him and others. He argued that his continued freedom depended upon the willingness of his white fellow citizens to resist the law and protect him if he were threatened. Following his plea that Syracuse be made an “open city” for fugitive slaves, the meeting voted 395 to 96 in favor of his proposal.
After the Civil War, Loguen took an interest in the welfare of the newly freed people and continued his church work. He was elevated to the rank of bishop of the AMEZ denomination in 1868, responsible for the Alleghany and Kentucky Conferences. In 1872, Loguen was about to take up a mission assignment to the Pacific Coast when tuberculosis forced him to resign and seek a cure at the mineral springs in Saratoga Springs, New York. He died there on September 20, 1872. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Syracuse.
Syracuse has preserved the history of the Underground Railroad, and Logeun’s participation in it. A historical marker sits on the corner of East Genesee and Pine Streets in Syracuse, what was once the home of Reverend Jermain and Caroline Loguen. A nearby, a park is also named for Loguen.
Loguen’s story also lives on through his writing. The Rev. J. W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman (1859) is a third-person account detailing Loguen's early life in slavery, his escape northward, and his ministerial and abolitionist activities in New York state and Canada. As the book notes,
“…he turned upon the tyrant and defied his power… he proclaimed, with a voice that waws heard throughout slavedom – “I am a fugitive slave from Tennessee. My Master is Manasseth Logue – the “letter of the law gives him a title to my person – and “let him come and take it. I’ll not run, not will I “give him a penny for my freedom.”
This narrative is a testimony to the resilience of Black Americans throughout history.
Learn more about Jermain Wesley Loguen
- Loguen, J.W. (1859). The Rev. J. W. Loguen as a Slave and as a Freeman: A Narrative of Real Life. Dodo Press, UK.
- Today in History: Reverend Jermain Loguen Passes Away in Syracuse (cnyhistory.org)
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