A Historic Black Rights Protest

Among the 20,000 participants at this 1850 abolitionist convention, dozens of the attendees had only recently escaped servitude. In this photograph, discover a rare glimpse of a historic call to end slavery.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

In late August 1850, Cazenovia, New York—a small town not far from Syracuse—hosted an important gathering.

This small photograph would fit easily in your hand. It measures only 6.7 × 5.4 cm (2 5/8 x 2 1/8 in). A close look reveals a number of stern-looking Americans gathered together, solemnly acknowledging the photographer’s presence.

Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York by an unknown photographer, after Ezra Greenleaf WeldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This man, Gerrit Smith, organized the meeting. Though he might look conservative to our eyes, with his carefully combed hair and high-collared shirt, Smith was known at the time as a radical political activist devoted to abolishing slavery. 

Graphic of Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York (Gerrit Smith) by an unknown photographer, after Ezra Greenleaf WeldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The rally was intended to foster opposition to a proposed Fugitive Slave Act under review by the United States Congress, which would allow marshals to arrest anyone suspected of having escaped enslavement and anyone who aided them. Thousands gathered to protest the Act. On the second day of the meeting, August 22nd, more than 2,000 people were in attendance. This photograph captures the speakers as well as some of the crowd jostling for a view. 

Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York by an unknown photographer, after Ezra Greenleaf WeldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The town paper claimed the gathering was made up of outside agitators, but it was Grace Wilson, a local school teacher and member of the Cazenovia Ladies Antislavery Society, who opened her apple orchard for the crowd, which had grown too big for the original venue nearby.

Today, a two-story apartment complex, a parking lot and several crabapple trees sit where the orchard once was.

Frederick Douglass chaired the meeting. He was well-known at the time for his fiery lectures and advocacy for Black rights. The intensity of his attention is visible even in this small portrait. He gazes steadily at the camera. 

Graphic of Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York (Frederick Douglass) by an unknown photographer, after Ezra Greenleaf WeldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

His bestselling autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, published in 1845, recounted the experience of being born and raised in slavery, his escape, and his life as a free man in a country that did not recognize the rights of all men and women.

Frederick Douglass, Unknown, ca. 1855, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Douglass was an incredibly dynamic speaker and writer, and increasingly came to appreciate the power of photography as another tool for shaping public perceptions of Black life. He circulated carefully posed photographs of himself to demonstrate the dignity of Black Americans.

He was not the only formerly enslaved participant that day. Fifty courageous fugitives joined the group, well aware of their risk in identifying themselves publicly, just as congress was reviewing a proposal to make their freedom illegal.

Two remarkable young women in attendance in the orchard, Mary and Emily Edmonson, had only recently escaped slavery. When they were just 13 and 15, they joined more than 70 others in a daring effort—funded by event organizer Gerrit Smith and arranged with the support of fellow abolitionist William Chaplin—to flee enslavement by ship. 

Graphic of Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York (Mary and Emily Edmonson) by an unknown photographer, after Ezra Greenleaf WeldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In the spring of 1848, they set sail from Washington, DC, in what is thought to have been the largest getaway attempt in American history, but only got as far as the Chesapeake Bay before being captured by an armed posse and towed back to the nation’s capital. 

Riots ensued, and proponents of slavery threatened to destroy the offices of an abolitionist newspaper to suppress the freedom movement. Shipped to Baltimore and then onto New Orleans by train with four of their brothers, the Edmonson sisters were displayed on a porch there for sale—subjected to the stares and taunts of all who passed by.

Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York by an unknown photographer, after Ezra Greenleaf WeldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Slave Pen, Alexandria, Virginia by William R. PywellThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Their arrival in New Orleans coincided with an outbreak of yellow fever. Concerned about a loss of profit should the girls fall ill, a slave trading company returned them north, to a house near this one in Alexandria, Virginia, where men, women, and children were made to work during the day and locked up at night until they could be sold to the highest bidder. 

Their father, Paul Edmonson, worked tirelessly with Henry Ward Beecher—a social reformer and the brother of writer Harriet Beecher Stowe—to secure their release. They were at last emancipated on November 4, 1848, when Beecher arranged to buy their freedom. At the time of the gathering in the apple orchard, they were enrolled in a college nearby.

In 2010, the City of Alexandria installed a sculpture and historical marker in honor of the Edmonson sisters. They stand tall as icons of strength and reminders of the country’s dark history.

Smith holds his arm out, gesturing to Mary Edmonson, who spoke to the crowd, while her sister Emily is at the center of the composition. Together they sang a mournful song in honor of an abolitionist editor who had been killed by a pro-slavery mob. Both young women, still just teenagers, appear self-assured, their heads held high, their bravery radiating from their determined presence.

Another woman appears prominently in the photograph, her eyes downcast. Upon further inspection, she holds a pen in hand and papers before her, and seems to be busily transcribing the day’s events. She is Theodosia Gilbert, the fiancé of William Chaplin, one of the abolitionists who had supported the Edmonson sisters’ attempted escape from DC. Chaplin was arrested for his role in the plot and at the time of this meeting remained in jail.

Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York by an unknown photographer, after Ezra Greenleaf WeldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Others on the stage that day included George W. Clark, a composer who recognized the power of music to support the abolitionist cause. Collections of his songs published in the 1840s included a preface advocating for freedom: “Who does not desire to see the day when music in this country, cultivated and practiced by ALL...shall be made to subserve every righteous cause–to aid every humane effort....”

Graphic of Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York (George W. Clark) by an unknown photographer, after Ezra Greenleaf WeldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Other activists on the dais, though blurry in this photograph, were similarly devoted to the cause. Among them was Charles B. Ray, an abolitionist editor, and James Caleb Jackson, an abolitionist who lectured widely on the importance of a healthy diet, and who later developed the first manufactured breakfast cereal. Each participant brought their own experiences, skills, and followers to the abolition movement. 

Graphic of Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York (Charles B. Ray, James Caleb Jackson) by an unknown photographer, after Ezra Greenleaf WeldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Despite the valiant efforts of this group, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed by Congress the following month. Though the law was felt by some politicians to be a compromise that might help to keep the nation together, in fact it further divided the country. The violence of the American Civil War soon erupted.

Sandwiched beneath glass, encased in leather with a brass mat, a velvet spacer, and faded silk lining, this daguerreotype’s case shows that it was thought of as a precious object meant to be passed from hand to hand. This is a typical way of preserving early photographs on metal, which are quite susceptible to deterioration from exposure to air and direct touch.

Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York by an unknown photographer, after Ezra Greenleaf WeldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

(Case Verso)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Though this is the sort of case in which the photograph would originally have been housed, a handwritten note on the back of the case exclaims that the packaging is “Not original case!” 

(Case Recto)The J. Paul Getty Museum

In the past, collectors sometimes separated photographs from their cases. Because the metal plates used to make the images were often produced in standard sizes, photographs occasionally found their way into different packaging over the course of generations.

This photograph was made using one of the first photographic techniques, which had been introduced to the world only eleven years earlier. Called the daguerreotype process, it produced a unique positive image directly on a polished metal plate.

Daguerreotypes were most often made inside photography studios, where lighting could be more carefully controlled. The use of natural light filtering through the trees of the orchard would have necessitated a lengthy exposure time for this photograph. Attendees would have had to hold still for quite some time in order for their images to register properly. Those who moved even slightly during the time that the camera lens was uncapped appear blurry in the final picture.

While daguerreotypes are usually one of a kind—made without an intervening negative—a nearly exact copy of this daguerreotype exists, suggesting that the event was deemed so important that more than one version of the image was created. The daguerreotype in the Getty Museum’s collection is thought to be a copy of the original daguerreotype of the convention made by Ezra Greenleaf Weld, the brother of abolitionist Thomas Weld.

(Main View), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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The daguerreotype process inverts the original view from nature so most early daguerreotypes showed the world in reverse on a metal plate. Because this photograph does not appear to be inverted, in contrast to the original Weld daguerreotype, historians believe that it is a photographic copy of the original daguerreotype of the event.

Cazenovia, the small town where the rally against the Fugitive Slave Act was held, is in Madison County, and the original daguerreotype from which this image seems to have been copied remains in the Madison County Historical Society collection in Oneida, New York.

Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York, an unknown photographer, after Ezra Greenleaf Weld, August 22, 1850, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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A mark embossed on the corner of the polished daguerreotype surface—now overlaid by this brass mat—dates the plate to 1849, suggesting that this daguerreotype copy was made not too long after the original.

Following the convention, attendees circulated an incendiary letter intended to encourage enslaved individuals to rise up against their oppressors. “You are prisoners of war, in an enemy’s country—of a war, too, that is unrivalled for its injustice, cruelty, meanness—and therefore by all the rules of war, you have the fullest liberty to plunder, burn, and kill, as you may have occasion to do to promote your escape.”



The photograph captured critical debates about democracy as abolitionists worked fervently to dismantle the institution of slavery.

Those gathered at Cazenovia discussed how to grapple with the platforms of political candidates unwilling to support abolition and urged attendees to boycott products of forced labor. Today, more than 170 years later, Americans across the country continue to insist that Black lives matter, much as Douglass and the others gathered in 1850 argued.

(Main View)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Graphic of Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York, an unknown photographer, after Ezra Greenleaf Weld, 1850-08-22, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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1. Mary Edmonson 2. Frederick Douglass 3. Gerrit Smith 4. Theodosia Gilbert 5. Emily Edmonson 6. George W. Clark 7. Charles B. Ray 8. James Caleb Jackson

Credits: Story

© 2021 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles 

For more on the American abolitionist movement and photographic history, see the following:

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2018)
Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson's Flight from Slavery (2016)
Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American (2015)
Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (2012)
Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad (2008)

To cite the texts in this exhibition, please use: "A Historic Black Rights Protest," published online in 2021 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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