Friday, November 3, 2017

How to Find Civil Cases Between White and Black Southerners in State Court Records

I’m excited to be guest blogging all month here at the Legal History Blog. I am a lecturer in American History at the University of Sussex in England and my new book Litigating Across the Color Line: Civil Cases Between Black and White Southerners from the End of Slavery to Civil Rights is releasing this month. My book examines almost one thousand civil cases between black and white southerners that took place across eight southern state supreme courts from 1865 to 1950. In these hitherto largely unexamined cases, individual black and white southerners contested economic matters central to their lives including disputes over property, contracts, transactions, personal injury, and bequests.  These suits between black and white southerners continued to regularly take place in southern courts even after disfranchisement set in around the South. My book considers how African Americans were able to litigate and win suits against whites in the Jim Crow South – and the limitations they met and compromises they had to make in order to do so. 

Throughout the month, I’ll be blogging about different aspects of my research, including the role of black women in these suits, the frequent suits brought by former slaves against their former masters, how these suits shifted over time, the strategies used by black southerners that helped them to win suits against whites, and these suits' links to the U.S. Civil Rights movement. I’ll also be providing links to some excerpts from the archival case files of some key cases examined in my book, which highlight what these sources look like and may be useful for teaching.

Before discussing what I found in my research, though, I wanted to start by discussing how I found these court records. These appellate civil cases are a very rich source in which much further research remains to be done. While the suits themselves are not representative of all civil cases litigated by African Americans in lower courts, they allow analysis of African Americans’ experiences in both trial and appellate courts. The archival case files of suits that reached southern supreme courts generally include the full trial records of the lower court case as well as records of the appeal. Often, the archival records for each case number 200 or 300 pages and include extensive trial testimony from African Americans as well as others in their communities.

I found these civil cases involving African Americans by doing advanced keyword searches on the LexisNexis database in the state supreme court records of each of the states examined. The search terms I used included “slave, freedman, freedwoman, Negro, black, Africa, African, color, colored and Negress.” As these cases took place over 85 years, certain terms were more common during certain periods than others.

After these keyword terms produced thousands of cases on LexisNexis, I then went through the LexisNexis record of the court cases to determine if the case actually involved a black litigant, and whether it took place between black litigants or between one or more black and white litigants. In many cases it was possible to determine this from the LexisNexis record, but in some cases it was necessary to look at the archival record or census data to determine the racial identity that southern courts and southern society assigned to the litigants.

Courtesy of the Kentucky Dept. for Libraries and Archives.

After compiling long lists of cases that might involve African Americans for each of the eight states, I then turned to archives in each state to examine the original archival case files. Generally, the case files were held by the state archives of that particular state. In Arkansas, however, the records were at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Law Library and in Virginia, records were held by the Virginia State Law Library, The Library of Virginia, and the University of Richmond’s William Taylor Muse Law Library (for a complete list of all the archives I consulted, see the Bibliography of Litigating Across the Color Line).  Fortunately, the vast majority of case files involving African Americans that I sought at these archives and law libraries still survived.  Some case files were still tied in what seemed to be their original faded ribbon, and several archivists noted that these records had only rarely been requested.  I concluded my search for these cases here at the archives by examining the case files to check the racial identities assigned to the litigants. As a result of this research, I found 980 appellate civil cases between black and white litigants and 397 appellate civil cases between two or more black litigants in the state supreme courts of eight southern states from 1865 to 1950.

I’ll be back again in a few days with more about how I analyzed this data and what I found in these cases.