Black History: Archy Lee

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 13, 2013

Every February (since 1976), the United States has observed Black History Month. The validity of the concept is argued nearly as regularly; I don’t really have anything to contribute to those arguments, least of all in this space. As it is, all the same, officially Black History Month, I do want to expand a bit on one relevant story from Brilliant Deduction.

There aren’t many such, as I acknowledge in the book itself; the era of great detectives as I’ve conceived of it played out in a place and time in which much of society was a white man’s world, and policing was not one of the exceptions. Women are fairly rare presences in Brilliant Deduction, as a result, and non-whites even moreso. I wasn’t thrilled about this, but ultimately it’s a look at how things were rather than any sort of advocacy for how things ought to be…

All that said, the story of Archy Lee and Isaiah Lees is a fine tale that fit naturally in the book, and is worth some further examination, and this month is as good a time as any.

In brief, at some point in the mid-1850s, white man Charles Stovall traveled to California along with black man Archy Lee, whom Stovall owned as a slave under the laws of his native Mississippi. The laws of California, however, were significantly less protective of slave ownership than Mississippi’s, and though the precise implications were regularly and heatedly contested, more than one black American managed to obtain freedom in the Golden State. Eventually, Archy Lee joined their number.

In Brilliant Deduction, I relate the last chapter of Lee’s struggle to do so, in which the main part was played by Isaiah Lees; Lee himself has a largely passive role in a near madcap scene, wherein Lees dramatically thwarts Stovall’s attempt to dodge the California courts’ ultimate judgment in favor of Lee* by kidnapping him. It’s quite a lively tale—but the events leading up to it are also interesting and inspiring, as well.

As commendable as was the role played by San Francisco’s police (at the time, entirely white, so far as I know), the greater part of the work in getting to that point where Lee had formally recognized liberty for them to protect was performed by dedicated local activists, many of them black. Activist networks of the time became, in the wording of Rudolph Lapp, “expert in helping black men to gain their freedom after they had been brought as slaves to the state.” These activists argued tirelessly for freedom, through the occasionally Kafka-esque court proceedings. They also worked to check those, including Stovall, who attempted to circumvent the legal process if it failed to deliver the result they wanted. In the case of Lee, supporters took up vigilance throughout northern California when he mysteriously disappeared following the state Supreme Court’s ruling on the case—this was technically in Stovall’s favor, but activists managed to obtain a writ of habeus corpus, permitting Stovall’s arrest when he elected to remove Lee back to slavery-friendly Mississippi by force.

The fact that San Francisco’s police subsequently carried out that arrest, after which re-opened court proceedings finally ruled Lee a free man, is an impressive demonstration of integrity; more than once police forces have conveniently found other things to do when called on to enforce laws they opposed. But the extensive efforts by members of California’s black community, and other private citizens, to secure freedom for Lee and many others like him are also well worth remembering. The episode as a whole is, I think, an inspiring representation of America’s ideals: an effective defense of the rights of one (black) man through the joint efforts of thoroughly WASP-ish Isaiah Lees & colleagues, and organized groups of black and white local citizens. Obviously, such battles have had to be re-fought up through the present day, but early successes like this are worth celebrating.

Most of my information about these events comes from Archy Lee: A California Fugitive Slave Case, by Rudolph M. Lapp, published by The Book Club of California. This 1969 work is very readable, though it may not be easy to find; I see the Amazon is advertising copies, however. Meanwhile, in preparing this post I came across two online articles about the case, at BlackPast.org and The Examiner.

* Because of the potential confusion, I mostly refer to Archy Lee by his first name in the book.

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