Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Two Controversial Decisions, The Story of Ralph Montgomery

Story of Ralph Montgomery


      Rafe Nelson was born into slavery in about 1795. His name was changed to Ralph Montgomery, for his slave master, early on in Virginia. It was common practice and tradition for slaves to have their names changed by their owners/masters. He was in his 20's when he was taken to Kentucky by his owner and sold to his owners brother, William Montgomery. In about 1830 Ralph was then sold to William's son, Jordan Montgomery who took Ralph and moved to Palmyra, Missouri. After about two years of servitude Ralph met Ellis Schofield, who had but just returned from a trip to the lead regions of the upper Mississippi River Valley. Ellis told Ralph of the fortune that could be made working in the lead mines. This inspired Ralph to procure his freedom from Jordan Montgomery. In 1834 he worked out an agreement with his owner for $550 and Ralph moved to Dubuque, Iowa and began working in the lead mines.

      After about 5 years Ralph had not been able to purchase his freedom for the agreed upon amount he made with Jordan Montgomery. Ralph was barely able to support himself let alone pay for his freedom. Around this same time Jordan was also experiencing financial difficulties as he had a $4,000 bank loan to repay. The contract Ralph made with Jordan was no secret. Two Virginians heard of his predicament and offered to return Ralph for $100. Jordan agreed not wanting to write Ralph off as a bad debt. The two Virginians swore an affidavit in front of a justice of the peace that Ralph was a fugitive, and the court official ordered the local sheriff to assist Montgomery's men. They found Ralph at his claim and arrested him.

      A farmer and business man, Alexander Butterworth was plowing his field nearby and witnessed the kidnapping. He quickly went to associate judge Thomas Wilson in Dubuque who drafted a writ of habeas corpus preventing Ralph from being taken away. Alexander and an officer of the law made it just in time to provide the writ as the Virginians were getting ready to board a boat with Ralph.

      The case was sent to Burlington to be heard before the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court.

      The writ was only a temporary injunction preventing Ralph from being relocated to Missouri as Jordan Montgomery and his attorney's challenged the document under the Missouri Compromise Act of 1820. They argued when Ralph relocated slavery was not specifically prohibited in the territory at the time. When Ralph failed to fulfill his contract he became a fugitive slave.

    David Rorer, a Virginia native and former slave owner in Arkansas was Ralph's attorney. He argued Ralph was neither slave nor fugitive because he entered a contract that presupposes a state of freedom and Ralph became a free man when, by consent of his master, moved to Iowa. Rorer also cited  Chapter 23 of the Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible, which says, in part: "Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you."

      The justices ruled Ralph shall pay Montgomery with a stipulation that he should repay the debt but even if he does not he can be sent back into slavery. Chief Justice Charles Mason wrote: "It is a debt which he ought to pay, but for the non-payment of which no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery", and he concluded: "should be discharged from all custody and constraint, and be permitted to go free while he remains under the protection of our laws." The ruling was delivered on Independence Day, July 4, 1839.

      Ralph's case stood for 17 years, and was followed in Iowa lower courts. But the principle of law In The Matter of Ralph was annulled in 1857 by the United States Supreme Court ruling of the Dred Scott v Sanford. Abraham Lincoln called this: "astonisher in legal history". Ralph's case was not cited by any of the justices in the Dred Scott v Sanford case and despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling no one attempted to take Ralph back into slavery. In 1906 the very eminent jurist, Honorable Jon F. Dillon considered the place of In the Matter of Ralph in history. He stated: "True it is that the Dred-Scott decision after-wards rendered was in direct conflict with Judge Mason's decision on Ralph's case. But in the civil war, a higher body than either of those courts, namely the American people, in their primary and sovereign capacity, overruled the Dred-Scott decision and re-establised the doctrines of the Iowa court in Ralph's case."

       Despite the ruling by the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court and that Ralph did indeed benefit from it by freed from slavery there were still many laws that were against blacks and people who were against the supreme court decision. Such congressional acts included: only whites had the right to vote, schools were opened only to whites, the militia was confined to free white males, blacks coming to the Iowa Territory had to produce a certificate of freedom and a %$500 bond, blacks were prohibited from being witnesses against whites in court cases, the marriage of blacks and whites was illegal, relief of the poor was denied to blacks and 6 months after the supreme court decision Ralph was even denied the vote in his own town of Dubuque. To Ralph his freedom from slavery was the most important thing.

      The next year Ralph showed in Associate Justice Wilson's garden working and explained: "I ain't paying you for what you done for me. But I want to work for you one day every spring to show you that I never forget."

       This decision of the Iowa Supreme Court was a major news item. It was reported by both Burlington newspapers. One of the papers, the Iowa Patriot, stated: "This decision will doubtless receive approbation of all who profess to be the friends of humanity and law throughout the Country, and obtain for the Judiciary of the Infant Territory of Iowa a name abroad which not, under and circumstances, have been granted." The reaction of slave owners in the Iowa territory is not recorded. The following year several heads of eleven Dubuque families announced their defiance of the law to the assistant marshal who the federal census. Sixteen slaves were enumerated from these 11 households. Reports of slavery continued in the territory. In 1852 L.P. "Tune" Allen brought two young slaves to Iowa from North Carolina and sold them to someone in Missouri.

       Ralph stayed in Dubuque for the rest of his natural life and continued to mine lead. He was credited with several profitable loads. He became a familiar figure around town often appearing dressed in a suit ready for business. Ralph eventually fell on hard times. There are contradictory reports he was either swindled or gambled his money away. The Dubuque Times stated: "His latter years were passed in comparative poverty," and he lived in the county poor house. Ralph was laid to rest in an unmarked plot in Linwood Cemetery, buried next to dozens of others in a mass grave.

       The cemetery manager Kandi Perry stated: "We know he's buried here because his name is on a list." A visitor to the cemetery in 2014 told Perry: "Ralph was responsible for me having my freedom," here's $20. In the spring, plant some flowers for him."

       Ralph's story continues and is told with a permanent reminder which stands outside the Judicial Branch on the Iowa State Capitol Grounds in Des Moines. In 2009 a sculpture, "Shattering Silence", designed by artist James Ellwanger, was installed on the 170 years anniversary of the 1839 decision made by the Iowa Supreme Court. The artwork stands 30 feet tall and features a ring made of limestone quarried in Dubuque.

       Though it was not without controversy and there was resistance to the decision this was the first of many such decisions made by the Iowa Supreme Court. Over time things would get better for blacks under the laws in Iowa.

References
Previous articles in the series:
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Introduction
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, History and Introduction
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1619
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1846
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1861
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1863
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1864
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1865
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1865 to 1990
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1990's
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1990 to Present
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, Artifacts, Book and CD
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 2002
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, Celebrations and Photos
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 2003 to 2004
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 2009 to 2010
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 2012 to 2015
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, Flags
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, Introduction
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, Iowa Civil Rights Timeline
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1839
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1868
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1869
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1873
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1884
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1925
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1905 to 1940
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1930
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1948
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1949
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1965
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1967
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1968
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1970
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1972
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1979
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1980
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1990
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 2007
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 2009
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, Resolving Conflicts/The Work Continues
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Two Controversial Decisions, Thesis and a Brief History of the Iowa Territory