Platt defends his freedom

Warwick. How a former enslaved man used the power of the press to voice his rights.

| 05 Feb 2024 | 10:33

One of the major frustrations for historians who want to know and share the diverse stories of their communities is the lack of archived material on persons of color. We have bits and pieces documenting the early African Americans of New York State, but very rarely can read and “hear” their own voice in the records. Recently in Warwick, New York, newly digitized newspapers revealed a long-hidden treasure: A formerly enslaved man publishing his case that he was, indeed, a free man.

In 1797, a man named Roger Clark placed a runaway ad in the Goshen Repository. It reads:

“Ten dollars reward. Ran away from the subscriber, living in Montague township, county of Sussex, State of New Jersey, a negro man, named Platt, about five feet ten inches high, somewhat pitted with the small-pox; had on when he went away a blew (sic) coat and striped vest, a pair of mixed colored overalls, and a white hat; talks good English. Whoever will take up said negro, and deliver him to the subscriber shall be entitled to the above reward, and all reasonable charges. All persons are forewarned harboring or employing said negro, as they will be dealt with as the law directs — Said Negro ran away about the 10th of August last. Roger Clark, Feb. 14, 1797.”

It is interesting that the ad was run so long after the self-emancipation — six months had passed. Continuing review of subsequent newspaper issues, in which the ad still ran, a letter to the editor appeared addressing this claim — authored by Platt himself.

“Mr. Hurtin, Having lately heard that Mr. Roger Clark, of Minisink, in New Jersey, has advertised me as a runaway, and least I might (because I am Black) be looked upon as such, I take the liberty through your paper, to give as concise a statement of facts as I can, which respect the premises — Then let the candid public judge between him and me.

“About five years ago I lived with Mr. Abraham Dolsen of Warwick, in Orange County, in the State of New-York, by him I was sold to the said Roger Clark, by him to a Mr. Foster, and by Mr. Foster to a Mr. Martin Cole, (all of New-Jersey), with whom I lived when I left Minisink; being informed by sundry persons that I was free by an act of the Legislature of the State of New-York, entitled ‘an act concerning slaves, passed 22d February 1788’ which any one can see by reading the fifth section of said act, which declare in substance, that any person buying or receiving a slave with intent to remove such slave out of this State to be sold, to forfeit £100, and such slave is declared by said act to be free. Under the impression and belief that I am free by virtue of said act. I came into this state and have openly and not privately attended to my business; I have been in New-Jersey often since and Mr. Clark has always known where I have been; I have also let him know that I was ready to go to trial with him in the Supreme Court in this State and to abide the decision of that honorable court.

“When he who is a friend to the liberties of mankind attends to the above statement, I flatter myself that Mr. Clark’s Ten Dollars will not be an inducement to any one to attempt to imprison me and to put me into the hands of Mr. Clark, as I have been informed that he intends if he can get me into his power to force me to Kentucky or some other distant place, and there to sell me, deprive me from making any exersions (sic) to secure myself the enjoyment of that liberty which I am so Justly entitled to, in the first place by the laws of nature, and secondly by the benevolent laws of the State of New-York.”

— Platt, Wallkill, Ulster County, March 1, 1797.

This was an astonishing letter to the editor — the bravery of the man to make a public statement! But New York State didn’t pass its gradual emancipation law until 1799. What was Platt referring to? A less known law that was passed February 22nd, 11 years earlier in 1788, titled “Chapter 40: An Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves into New York State.” This lengthy legislation includes, as Platt correctly cites, as its Fifth clause:

“...if any person shall at any time purchase or buy or shall as factor or agent to another, take or receive any slave with intent to remove, export, or carry such slave from this state, to another place without this State, and there to be sold, the person so purchasing or buying or as Factor or Agent receiving or taking a slave, with such intent....shall be deemed to have committed an offence against the people of this state (substantial fines stated)... and the slave so purchased bought, taken or received shall be immediately after... is hereby declared to be free.”

It is impossible to know if Platt was highly educated, or if an advocate helped him compose the letter to the editor. Subsequent issues of the newspaper have no further ads or discussion. Attempts have been made to trace him but assuming “Platt” was his first name and we have no surname, so far we are unable to discover any more of his story. Did he succeed in silencing his accuser? Could he safely stay in the region, or was he forced to migrate? Did he marry and have a family? And, sadly, we do not know where he ended his days and now rests; perhaps in an unmarked grave, having lived out the rest of his days in freedom.

Sue Gardner

Town of Warwick Deputy Historian