The 13th Amendment and Rose Herera’s children

Today is the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment by the states on December 6, 1865. This is the day that Georgia ratified the amendment, giving it the necessary approval of three-quarters of the states. Here is the famous text of the Section 1 of the amendment:

“Neither Slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime; whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

I cannot let this anniversary pass without noting that despite the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, Rose Herera’s three children remained slaves in Cuba, where they had been taken by their owners in January 1863. The Thirteenth Amendment didn’t extend as far as Cuba, which was not within the United States and not subject to its jurisdiction. It did not free her kidnapped children.

The fate of Rose Herera’s children became an international affair when Herera’s lawyer, Thomas Jefferson Durant, appealed to Secretary of State William Seward to help his client. “Her children have now been kept from her for three years,” Durant wrote to Seward on New Year’s Day 1866, “and in her name I earnestly invoke the aid of your department to redress one of the most grievous injuries that the crimes of a departed system have left evidence of.” (Report, 48)

It would take the resources of the State Department, and the pressure of a frightening rumor that newly freed people were being kidnapping and sold into slavery in Cuba, for Rose Herera to get her children back…