A six-year-old girl named Med changed the course of history when she left her home in Louisiana on May 1, 1836. She had been enslaved since birth, the daughter of another slave. Samuel Slater of New Orleans owned both mother and daughter.
Her mistress, Mary Aves Slater, took Med from her mother to visit her own father, Thomas Aves, in Boston.
Mary Slater intended to return within a few months, but fell ill and asked her father to take care of Med.
In August of 1836, the ladies of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society learned about Med’s presence in town.
Abolitionists were wildly unpopular, especially female abolitionists. The year before Med arrived, an angry mob had surrounded a building where the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society held a meeting.
Undercover To Find Med
The ladies of the Society decided to see Med for themselves. Posing as recruiters for a Sunday school, they wangled an invitation into the Aves home on Beacon Hill for tea and conversation. They then confirmed that the Aves family held Med as a slave in the free state of Massachusetts.
The women hired lawyers to petition for a writ of habeas corpus for Med. Their team included Ellis Gray Loring, Levin Harris and Rufus Choate, a rival to Aves’ defense lawyer, Benjamin Curtis. Curtis later served on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case represented the first time anyone legally questioned the status of a slave who temporarily left a slave state for a free state.
Curtis argued for the defense that Med wanted to go home to her mother. He also argued the abolitionists tried to rip her family apart.
Loring argued for the plaintiffs that slavery already tore apart Med’s family. He said Med’s owners should free her mother so she could come north to reunite with her daughter. Rufus Choate argued that if one planter could bring a slave to Massachusetts, they all could.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judge Lemuel Shaw sided with the plaintiffs. He ruled Med was free under the constitution of Massachusetts and ordered her to be made a ward of the court. But Shaw, who later established the “separate but equal doctrine,” split his decision. He also ruled that people could bring their slaves to Massachusetts, but only for a limited time.
The trial made national news, followed especially closely by newspapers in Louisiana and Massachusetts and the African-American press.
Shaw’s decision angered the South, not least because almost every free state adopted it. Hundreds of freedom suits followed.
The women of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society were jubilant.
Not A Happy Ending
The women of the Society renamed Med Maria Somersett, and she became a celebrity. At their annual anti-slavery fair the ladies sold workbags to commemorate Little Med’s case, with an image of a slave kneeling before Justice.
Within two years of obtaining her freedom, the lawyer Ellis Gray Loring asked about Med’s deteriorating health. He offered to pay for a full-time nurse and to send his own doctor as a consulting physician.
But Med then died of unknown causes in the Samaritan Asylum for Colored Orphans.
This story was updated in 2022.