Thursday, November 16, 2017

What Kind of Civil Cases Black Southerners Litigated Against Whites in Southern Courts, 1865-1899

As black southerners litigated civil cases against whites in southern appellate courts from the end of the Civil War to the mid-20th century, they found it far easier to litigate certain kinds of civil cases against whites than others. The types of civil cases that they could litigate in appellate courts also shifted over time.
Courtesy: Library of Congress

A baseline for what kinds of cases state supreme courts around the country were hearing can be
established from an extensive study of almost 6,000 cases heard by 16 state supreme courts around the U.S. (including several in the South) completed during the 1970s. An analysis of the kinds of cases found to be coming before these courts between 1870 and 1970 appeared in the January 1977 Stanford Law Review. In contrast, the research for my new book Litigating Across the Color Line found the proportions of different kinds of appellate civil cases litigated by black southerners significantly diverged from the proportions of such cases documented in U.S. state supreme courts as a whole.

The most frequent types of appellate civil suits litigated by black southerners against whites between 1865 and 1899 were suits over wills/bequests, cases over transactions/contracts, property dispute cases, and cases over personal injury. In particular, during this period, African Americans litigated appellate civil cases against whites over wills and estates far more often than such cases appeared in general appellate litigation. While the 1977 study found cases over inheritance/estates made up 6% of overall cases between 1870 and 1900, inheritance/estates cases made up approximately 36% of black litigants' appellate civil cases against white litigants in the 8 courts examined between 1865 and 1899. In such cases, black litigants frequently litigated suits against white heirs to obtain a bequest left in a former master or former employer's will. For instance, a number of former slaves who had been left money in former masters' wills to facilitate their migration to Liberia brought civil suits after the Civil War to claim the bequests without having to move to Liberia.  I argue that such cases made up a large proportion of black southerners' litigation because they drew on the power of a white person's will and appealed to respected legal precedents around bequests.

In addition, cases over contracts and transactions occurred about twice as often in African Americans' appellate civil cases during Reconstruction than they occurred in general appellate cases during this time. In these cases over contracts and transactions, black litigants presented themselves as able to function competently and independently in the postwar economic realm and at times boldly challenged economic injustice. In one such contract suit in 1873, a black sharecropper named Moses Summerlin did not tend his crops for several weeks after his wife died. He soon returned to the fields but when he asked William Smith, the white owner of the land, to aid him in hauling the cotton and corn, Smith refused and accused the sharecropper of producing only half of the crop that he could have. In response, Moses Summerlin brought a civil case against Smith that appealed to the law of contract to gain his portion of the crop. In his testimony, Summerlin emphasized his economic abilities, stating that he had employed “five or six hands” to work for him. At great personal risk, Summerlin also told the court that when he had asked the white landowner to give him his portion of the crop, Smith ordered him out of the yard and told him “if he came back he would kill him.”  In the end, the county court ordered the white landowner to pay $113.18 and legal costs to Summerlin, and on appeal, the Georgia state supreme court upheld the decision. While this was significantly less than the amount the sharecropper had claimed, Summerlin had shifted -- in some small way -- the terms upon which he and Smith operated.* Through his litigation and testimony, he had also publicly expressed his own ideas about how the post-war southern economy should function.  At the same time, by hearing such suits and at times ruling in favor of the black litigant, white jury members and judges could show the supposed justice of southern courts and seek to elide widespread unfairness in the labor system and property transactions.

I'll be back tomorrow morning to discuss the kinds of appellate civil cases black litigants most frequently litigated against whites in southern courts between 1900 and 1950.

*Smith v. Summerlin, 48 Ga. 425 (1873).