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.

Read more…

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