Illinois Supreme Court Justice Robert L. Carter of Ottawa will be the keynote speaker on Monday, July 4, at the outdoor dedication of a state historical marker commemorating the 1859 escape of a runaway slave in downtown Ottawa. The dedication will take place at 2 p.m. on the north lawn of the old La Salle County Courthouse in Ottawa. The courthouse is the site of an earlier courthouse where the escape took place.
Justice Carter, who is well-versed in local legal history, will comment on the significance of the escape and the aftermath.
The emcee for the event will be attorney James Keely of the La Salle County Bar Association. Also speaking will be attorney Robert Eschbach, the former Ottawa mayor and a member of the Ottawa Historic Preservation Commission.
In 1859, Jim Gray, a slave who escaped from Missouri, was apprehended in Illinois by slave hunters. He arrived in in Ottawa by train round in chains with a rope around his neck for a hearing before Justice John Dean Caton of the Illinois Supreme Court.
The next day, with a crowd of hundreds outside the courthouse, Caton had little choice but to order Gray to be taken to Springfield for a hearing under the federal Fugitive Slave Law.
With the likely outcome being Gray’s return to slavery in Missouri, the crowd’s abolitionists freed Gray and provided a carriage where he was quickly driven out of town to safety. Ottawa businessman John Hossack and others involved in the escape were taken to Chicago for trial where they were treated as celebrities.
The cast aluminum marker is sponsored by the Ottawa Historic Preservation Commission, the La Salle County Bar Association, the William G. Pomeroy Foundation and the Illinois State Historical Society.
Carter, who served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, has been a judge since 1979 when he became a member of the 13th Judicial Circuit Court which covers La Salle, Bureau and Grundy counties. He became chief judge in 1993.
In 2006, Carter was appointed to the 3rd District Appellate Court, one of the state’s five appeal courts. In 2020 he was appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court by the unanimous vote of its other members. His term will end in December after a successor is elected in the November election.