Peter Gray Defended Emeline, a Person of Color

While filing newspaper clippings at the museum, Deborah Chambers found an interesting article about Peter Gray for whom Gray County is named.

Photo of Eloise Lane

Eloise Lane

In 1847 at Houston, Gray was a prominent lawyer, city alderman and state representative when he agreed to take the case of Emeline, a freed black woman who had been forced back into slavery. Emeline was the daughter of Rhoda, a Tennessee slave, who had sev- eral children by her white master. Apparently, he wanted his children to be free and sent Rhoda and the children to Philadelphia. At that time, under the laws of Tennessee and Pennsylvania, blacks were emancipated after living outside slave territory for six months. Rhoda returned to Tennessee where Emeline was born in 1821.

Before Emeline came to Houston, she was in Rapides Parish, La., where she had two sons, John and William. As soon as she arrived in Harris Co., slave owner Jesse P. Bolls forced her and her sons into slavery. In 1847, when she could neither read nor write, Emeline filed her lawsuit, titled “Emeline, a free person of color v. Jesse P. Bolls.’~ This bold attempt to regain her freedom was at a time when slaves had no rights under the law. It seems likely that Gray took Emeline’s case because he saw it as a case in which someone was being denied freedom and justice.

Also he saw the court system he had helped to create as a way to right a wrong. He made extraordinary efforts for Emeline, a process requiring hours of laborious writing and copying. He took a remarkable leap of faith in believing that Emeline’s version of the facts was accurate and that witnesses would tell the truth in support of a black person’s claims of freedom from a white person. Eighteen months after it was filed, Emeline’s case was called to trial in November 1848. The jury was extraordinary because not one of the normal pool of 35 members was chosen to listen to the testimonies.

Apparently, Gray was convinced that a normal jury would be unpredictable, and he managed to have 12 prominent men hand-picked for the trial. The stakes were high. If Emeline had lost the case, at the very least, Bolls could have been expected to separate her from her two sons by selling them in one of the weekly slave auctions. If Bolls had lost, he would have been disgraced by a woman he regarded as a slave. The jury behaved as Gray thought it would and decided that Emeline should remain free and that Boils should pay a fine of 1$.

It would be appropriate for Peter Gray’s portrait to be returned to hang on the wall of the courthouse of the county named for him. Note: This article is taken from “Slave’s victory in court found in documents” by Harvey Rice in the Houston Chronicle for Feb.24,2004. A synopsis of Emeline’s case was written by State District Judge Mark Davidson who selected it from thousands of decaying papers that the Harris Co. district clerk’s office is trying to preserve.

Over 200 Articles, written by Eloise Lane, were published in the Pampa News. These articles may be accessed by clicking on each section below. A list of articles will be revealed that are linked to a page containing the text of the article.

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