Monday, October 12, 2009

Shattering Silence

The October 2009 issue of the Iowa Genealogical Society Newsletter (PDF--1.42 MB) contains an article of interest. In October the Iowa Department of Administrative Services will dedicate a new sculpture, which will be displayed near the Judicial Branch Building on the Capitol Complex in Des Moines. Shattering Silence is a creation of Des Moines artist James Ellwanger, and is constructed of native Iowa stone and highly reflective steel. It commemorates the first ruling handed down by the Supreme Court of the Iowa Territory in 1839.

It so happens there is a Dubuque connection. Ralph, a slave for a Mr. Montgomery in Missouri, had contracted with his owner to pay $550 over five years for his freedom. Ralph was hoping to earn that money by working in the lead mines around Dubuque. Unfortunately, Ralph was unable to accumulate enough money. When two bounty hunters planned to return Ralph to Missouri, a local farmer intervened. The local magistrate was notified and the case wound up in the Territory’s high court.

The court's ruling confirmed Iowa's position as a free territory. The court ruled that "Ralph was neither fugitive nor slave. Since his owner had permitted him to live on Iowa soil, he had become free and a court could not return a man to slavery on non-payment of a bad debt." Slavery was prohibited in Iowa, so Ralph was free. Doug Donald and Lenore Howard portrayed this event in their dramatization, "In the Matter of Ralph, a Black Man."

If you are interested in knowing more, Ralph Montgomery is listed in our obituary index. You can also check his entry in Encyclopedia Dubuque.

I find Dubuque history so fascinating! David Rorer, who was Ralph's attorney, is also credited with coming up with the nickname "the Hawkeye State."

~Betty, Adult Services

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