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Frank Case

California

California’s 1851 "Frank Case," became one of the most hotly disputed trials in early state history, and served to energize and unify San Francisco’s African American community in a manner that later became common.

In 1850, a Missouri slave owner named Calloway brought Frank to work in California’s gold mines. Soon after arrival at the mines, Frank eluded his owner to join the ranks of freedom seekers who had found refuge in San Francisco’s growing African American community.

Two months later, Calloway managed to locate Frank in San Francisco, and had him imprisoned under the conditions set forth by the recently enacted federal Fugitive Slave Act. San Francisco’s African American community joined with white abolitionists to protest the detainment. Together, the two groups rallied to Frank’s defense, and retained legal help from white abolitionist society. An affidavit was sent to a local judge, Roderick Morrison, which described Frank’s detainment and forthcoming deportation back to Missouri.

The case was brought before Judge Morrison, who handed down a ruling that shocked California’s pro-slavery elements. Morrison stated that the federal Fugitive Slave Act had no bearing on the Frank Case because the young freedom seeker had left Calloway while already in California, and had not crossed state lines. Morrison further noted that Calloway had produced no evidence demonstrating that Frank was indeed his property.

When Calloway’s attorneys protested by saying that Frank himself had stated that he had been enslaved, the Judge replied that he had rejected Frank’s remarks, as the California State Legislature had made African American testimony in court illegal. Confounded by Judge Morrison, Calloway relented and Frank was ruled a free man.