Lemmon slave case exhibit underway at Yates County Courthouse

John Christensen
The Chronicle Express

The exhibit is on display in the upper lobby of the Yates County Courthouse for public viewing 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday until June 10

Yates County Judge Jason Cook was proud to introduce the New York State Courts' historic exhibit on the landmark Lemmon Case. With him are retired Yates County Judge Patrick Falvey and 7th District Administrative Judge William Taylor. The exhibit will be on display in the upper lobby of the Yates County Courthouse for public viewing until June 10. The exhibit will then be available for public viewing at the District’s Monroe County Hall of Justice, 99 Exchange Blvd., Rochester, from June 27 through July 9.

PENN YAN — In a special ceremony held June 2, Yates County Judge Jason Cook was proud to introduce the New York State Courts' historic exhibit, "The Lemmon Slave Case: 1852-1860, A Prelude to the Civil War." 

Yates County is the first location in the 7th District to host the exhibit on the historic case of slave ownership in New York, owing to the strength of the Abolitionist cause here during the 19th century. The exhibit will be on display in the upper lobby of the Yates County Courthouse for public viewing until June 10. Viewing hours are between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Judge Cook says that students from local schools are scheduled to visit the exhibit while it is Penn Yan. 

"This display was created by the Historical Society of the New York Courts working in collaboration with the N.Y.S. Office of Court Administration," said Cook. "I am pleased and honored that our Yates County Courthouse was chosen as the first ceremony to be held here in the 7th Judicial District, and one of only two in the eight counties of this district. This display will be moved later this month to the Hall of Justice in Monroe County."

The exhibit consists of eight large display panels with important historical information. A video with the remarks by Chief Judge of New York State Courts Janet Difiore, and narrated by the renown actor James Earl Jones. You can view the video online at https://history.nycourts.gov/the-lemmon-slave-case/.

Through the facts of the case, we learn how the courts helped free eight enslaved young women and children who sailed into New York harbor with their owners from Virginia. The Court of Appeals’ ruling was in direct conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857, representing the most unyielding statement made against slavery by any court in the United States prior to the civil war.

"The Lemmon case repudiated slavery and was decided before the Civil War," explained Cook. "The case demonstrates how N.Y. courts were able to make a real difference in the lives of enslaved people and advance the cause of freedom. The case started in 1852, with a writ of habeas corpus, filed by Louis Napoleon (an illiterate Black citizen but well versed in the laws of slavery), on behalf of eight enslaved people being transported by the Lemmon family from Virginia to Texas. Fortunately for the enslaved people, their travel took them through New York.

"In New York slavery had been abolished by statute on July 4, 1827, and on that basis, Napoleon was able to argue in his writ that the enslaved people were being unlawfully held and detained while they were here in New York. Louis Napoleon filed a writ of habeas corpus in a New York trial court, requesting the court to declare the freedom of the enslaved people. Lawyer John Jay, grandson of one of our founding fathers, also named John Jay, argued that since the enslaved people had been voluntarily brought to New York by their owners, they became free when they stepped on New York soil.

Judge Elijah Paine's decision to free the Lemmon slaves, applying not only New York's law regarding slavery, but a higher moral law of human freedom, was upheld  in two appeals.

"The trial Judge Hon. Elijah Payne granted the application and in so doing set the eight formerly enslaved people free, concluding that when an enslaved person was brought into a Free State, then the laws of any slave state no longer applied. After his ruling, appeals of the trial court's decision ensued, pursued by the State of Virginia, and in 1857 the Lemmon case reached the appellate division court which affirmed Judge Paine's historic ruling. In 1860, the case reached New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, which upheld and affirmed Judge Payne's ruling. Shortly after that ruling, the Civil War began, which led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery in this country.

"To this day, Louis Napoleon and the others involved in this historic N.Y. case are recognized for their significant contribution to the cause of freedom and the rule of law."

The Historical Society of the New York Courts, in collaboration with the Court System, began a 90-week tour last fall of the exhibit on this landmark Court of Appeals case, which will ultimately travel to 45 courthouses across the state.

With Cook in welcoming the first to view the exhibit were retired Yates County Judge Patrick Falvey and Administrative Judge for the Seventh Judicial District, the Honorable William Taylor, Supreme Court Justice from Monroe County. Also present were Deputy District Executive Amy Monachino, Penn Yan Mayor Dan Condella, members of the Yates County Legislature, County Administrator Nonie Flynn, County Clerk Lois Hall, and other members of various departments.


Please note that all visitors to New York State Unified Court System courthouses are required to submit to temperature screening and COVID questioning before entering the courthouse. All visitors entering the courthouse are required to wear a mask or face covering while inside. Persons without a mask or face covering will not be permitted to enter the courthouse.