In September of 1837, Henry Bright returned from Alabama to Massachusetts with his family. He had made a business career there, but his family had become increasingly opposed to slavery. Henry owned slaves, who were his household servants, and he gave them their freedom – and the choice to come to the free state of Massachusetts with his household. Among them was five-year-old Elizabeth Bright.
The Brights had taken Elizabeth into their home after little Elizabeth’s mother died, and they committed to giving her and education and helping her find her way as a free woman. But abolitionists in Boston were concerned. It was not unheard of for slave owners to come to the state and then leave. And when they returned to slaveholding states, their slaves were again stripped of their freedom.
That exact case was played out in Medford in 1836. Mary Slater – a Louisiana native – tried to retain right of ownership over a young slave named Med. She had planned to sell the boy in Louisiana to pay for her relocation north.
A judge ruled that just the act of setting foot on the free soil of Massachusetts meant that young Med was no longer anyone’s property. He was a free man.
While Henry had no plans to return any of his servants to slavery, Sophia and John Robinson didn’t intend to wait to find out. The black couple owned a clothing store and lived in Boston with their children. When they learned that Elizabeth was living in Cambridge with one-time slave owners, they laid plans to secure her safety. With an accomplice who encouraged Elizabeth to step outside to play, the Robinsons snatched the girl from the street and took her to Boston.
The Robinsons shipped Elizabeth to New Bedford to live under the care of abolitionists there.
Henry Bright was alarmed by Elizabeth’s disappearance, and he soon found out who had taken her and why since the Robinsons never denied their involvement. Samuel Sewell and Ellis Gray Loring were two prominent lawyers who were active in the abolitionist movement. Loring had advised the Robinsons on their plan to kidnap Elizabeth. He had suggested they were on legally sound ground to abduct her, but should not take any of her belongings.
Henry approached Samuel Snowden, a prominent black minister in Boston who was active in the abolitionist movement. At the suggestion of Snowden, Loring and Sewell, Henry published a letter declaring his intent to preserve Elizabeth’s freedom.
He posted a bond, agreeing that he would pay the abolitionist society $500 if he went back on his word and sold Elizabeth into slavery.
The Robinsons weren’t convinced. They demanded $1,000 bond. And when Henry agreed, Sylvia Robinson changed her position once more and declared she had no intention of returning the girl. Despite pleas from leading abolitionists, the Robinsons were unconvinced.
Henry then turned to the courts. Since Elizabeth was an orphan, he filed a request to be named guardian. He petitioned the court to grant her status as a free girl. The court declared that Elizabeth was already free just by virtue of being in Massachusetts.
Still, the Robinsons declined to bring Elizabeth out of hiding. Smooth talking slaveholders could fool white abolitionists, Sylvia Robinson said. But black people had a better understanding of the slaveholders mindset and she could not be tricked.
In December, the Robinsons were convicted of kidnapping. Given two days to return the girl, the Robinsons acquiesced. They were fined and given a four month jail sentence – relatively lenient punishment for the crime of kidnapping. The sentence was stayed while the case was appealed, and in 1838, the Brights petitioned the court to drop the charges, which it did. They were good to their word and made no effort to enslave Elizabeth.
Thanks to The Peculiar Kidnapping Case of Elizabeth Bright by Anne Marie Reardon and The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America by Wilbur R. Miller.