Skip to main content
Enslaved People in the Southeast

Kidnappings of African American Children

The first Fugitive Slave bill was passed in 1793 as the Fugitive Slave Act. This meant that white people could claim any black person as a fugitive and placed the burden of proor on the captive - free or former enslaved person - to prove they were not a slave. Free blacks living in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and other cities near borders were very vulnerable.

Kidnappers, also called slavers or slave speculators, often seized free blacks at random making it very difficult for the captives to prove their freedom. Children were especially easy to target. A kidnapping ring worked near Philadelphia in the mid 1820s where Joseph Johnson and others lured 8 - 15 year olds with promises of work and then shipped them South to be sold in slavery.

It is estimated by the PBS documentary Africans in America that in a two-year period at least 100 black children were kidnapped in Philadelphia.

April 20, 1827 letter from Joseph Watson to Colonel Philip Hickey informing him of the situation of the kidnapped African American children. Image courtesy of LSU Libraries Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State University.

Over the course of eight months in 1827, a discussion developed between Joseph Watson, mayor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and planter Colonel Phillip Hickey of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, regarding the plight and whereabouts of five free African American children who were kidnapped from Philadelphia and sold into slavery in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In Mayor Watson’s letter of introduction, he informs Colonel Hickey of the 1823-1824 kidnappings of seven-year old John Williams, fifteen-year old Benjamin Gray, fourteen-year old James Dailley, fifteen- or sixteen-year old John Dunbar, and eighteen- or nineteen-year old Jane Victoire/Victory. Watson asserted that Hickey had James Dailley and another boy (Ephraim Lawrence) in his possession through his purchase of the two via kidnapper, Patrick Pickett, and that the other kidnapped children were with neighboring planters.

Hickey’s response deflected Watson’s assertion that he had James Dailley. Hickey further stated his personal doubts of the kidnapping, the distrust of southern planters for northerners, and his distaste for emancipation efforts. Hickey admitted that he acquired a boy named James Daily from Emilia Pickard, the wife of Patrick Pickard, but that his description does not match that provided by Watson.

By October 1827, Hickey received a response from Watson who insisted that Hickey cooperate with the investigation into the kidnappings, and to provide any information on the Pickett’s/Pickard’s. He writes, “For the last ten years I have abundant proof, that our laws have been trampled upon, and a system of kidnapping, and man stealing practiced upon us to a monstrous extent, by a ban of felons, that deserve the excration of every highminded and honourable man.” Finally, Hickey capitulated and returned Ephraim Lawrence, who died eight days after his arrival in Philadelphia. Yet, as of Watson’s last letter on the incident in January 1828, Hickey kept James Dailley.