For the first time, an author revealed the remarkable and little-known true story of Archy Lee, a young black man who gained his freedom in San Francisco in 1858.
And the author, Brian McGinty, happens to live here in Scottsdale.
“Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom” was published January 2020, by Lyons Press and is currently available for sale on Amazon.
“It’s a story about a black man who struggled for his freedom,” McGinty said. “It’s of a lot of interest for people who are interested in black history.”
Taking place a year after the Supreme Court’s notorious Dred Scott decision and during the California Gold Rush, McGinty’s book tells the story of Lee, who was freed from the claims of a white man, Charles Stovall, who sought to return him to slavery in Mississippi.
“I hadn’t heard about the story before, so I looked it up to find out what was going on, and I found out there was a vast source of information about what actually happened to him that hadn’t been investigated, never been written about,” McGinty said.
McGinty believes Lees’ story has been largely untold because people misunderstood what happened in California at the time.
“The Constitution itself said there was no slavery in California, people ... were treated very, very badly in California, almost as if they were slaves, despite the fact the California constitution prohibited slavery,” McGinty said.
The book also described events that occurred in the “Year of Archy Lee,” including the bloody 1858 struggle over slavery in the Kansas Territory, the 1858 debates over slavery between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in Illinois and the 1858 appearance of Donati’s Comet, the first comet ever photographed.
Also a painter who attended classes at the Scottsdale Artists’ School, McGinty painted his version of the comet soaring over Lee’s head. The oil painting is on display in McGinty’s home and printed in the book.
“There are no known photographs or pictures of Archy Lee because he was a slave; and in those days, they didn’t take pictures or portrait pictures of slaves. So, I worked on this painting while I was finishing up the book,” McGinty said.
McGinty spent a year researching, writing and editing the book.
He and his partner, Jim Barnett, traveled to Sacramento to find the original transcript of the Supreme Court decision issued against Lee. They also visited the First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in San Francisco.
“The church plays a big part in the story of Archie Lee, and it is still in existence there. I visited the church [and] found out much more about its early history,” McGinty said.
McGinty also searched the National Archives for the court records and scoured the Arizona Historical Society’s microfilm collection.
But, “a big part of the research Brian did,” Barnett said, “was locating all these old photos from one lead to another and finding, ‘Oh, there might be a photo at this archive. There might be something there’ and getting the permission to use the photos.”
The research was so vast and thorough, “Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom” has nearly 100 pages dedicated to footnotes and the bibliography.
“I hope [readers] will understand the struggle over slavery was what really led to the civil war that threatened to destroy the United States as we know it,” McGinty said.
The author of 13 books and nearly 200 articles, McGinty is a historical nonfiction writer and historian, particularly interested in American history, the history of the American West and American legal history.
He also earned his degree in American history and law from U.C. Berkeley.
McGinty was nominated and won several awards for his writing, including the Best Writing Prize from the National Historical Society, the Editor’s Award for Historical Scholarship from the Sonoma County Historical Society in California, a nomination for the One Book Arizona prize for 2008, and an Honorable Mention in the 2010 Scribes Book Award of the American Society of Legal Writers.
“I’m going to be a little bit immodest in saying a lot of people think my writing is interesting to read,” McGinty said. “I have a writing style that tells a story, but I also am very scrupulous and looking after the actual facts.”
McGinty has always been an avid reader, since he was a boy; and to date, he has around 1,000 books in his northern Scottsdale home.
“When I was a kid, I used to get presents for Christmas and birthdays, and if I got a book, it was my most treasured present,” McGinty said.
“They can be a wonderful repository of knowledge and also something people enjoy and they have a permanent value. That’s why I just love books.”
“Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom” is available for purchase for $10.89 on Amazon.