Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Black Southerners' Suits Against their Former Masters: Cases and Teaching Resources

I'm back for a final week of blogging about the research in my book Litigating Across the Color Line. Today I'll be discussing the cases that I found between former slaves and their former masters and the heirs of both parties. These cases make up about two-thirds of the appellate civil cases between black and white litigants in the eight states I examined during the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) and about one-third of such appellate cases during the two decades after Reconstruction (1878-1899). These cases are a particularly rich source to examine African Americans' experiences during slavery and their shifting interactions with their former masters and mistresses after emancipation as well as an important source to examine the legal strategies that these groups used against each other in the years after emancipation.

Courtesy Mississippi Dept. of Archives & History
Cases involving former slaves and former masters are often intensely personal, with both parties testifying in court not only about their changed relations after the Civil War, but also about their decades of previous interactions with each other during slavery. Both former slaves and former masters characterized their experiences with each other during slavery in certain ways to win their suits. At times during trials, former masters argued that their former slaves were disloyal or dishonest. In contrast, some formerly enslaved men and women presented themselves as particularly hardworking or faithful. Other black litigants boldly challenged their former masters and their former masters' heirs, claiming that their former masters' heirs and executors had fraudulently taken funds directed for them or earned by them. At the same time, former slaves and former masters (and their heirs) both frequently drew on their long-term knowledge of each other to gain the advantage in their suits. Former slaves noted in their testimony conversations and experiences that they had had with their former masters to support their legal claims. Meanwhile, former slaveholders sometimes used their previous experiences with the black litigants to try to hurt former slaves' reputations.

In a number of cases, former slaves challenged their former masters' wills. At times, they asserted that bequests to send them to Liberia could be received without such migration. In the 1872 Missisippi case of Cowan v. Stamps a slaveholder named Abner Cowan had written a will in 1850 that directed that all of his slaves and their "increase" be sent to Africa after his death. According to the will, all of his property should be sold after his death to pay for their travel and any remaining funds were to be given to his former slaves for their "use and benefit" upon "their arrival on that Continent." However, Abner Cowan did not die until the end of 1864 and at the time, the area of Missisippi in which he lived was a no-man's land between Union and Confederate forces, making it impossible to initiate probate proceedings. After the war, about 30 of his former slaves became litigants in the civil action over his will and claimed that they should be able to receive the proceeds of his estate without immigrating to Liberia.

In other cases, former slaves challenged their former masters' ability to control them or their property after the war. In the 1869 North Carolina case of Buie v. Parker, Henry Buie had found a mule that had been abandoned by General Sherman's forces during the last months of the Civil War. At the time that he found the mule, his master had recently fled before the Union Forces, telling his slaves that "they could go to the Yankees or stay at home, as they pleased." Henry Buie remained on his former master's plantation, but when his master eventually returned after the war's end, he insisted on keeping the mule for himself. He continued working on the same plantation, though, now as paid labor. Matters came to a head sometime between the end of 1865 and the beginning of 1868, when Henry Buie's former master John Buie forcibly took possession of the mule. In response, the freedman made a claim to the local office of the Freedmen's Bureau which mobilized the Union Army to return the mule to the former slave. To try to regain the mule, his former master then filed a suit against him in the local county court. Henry Buie responded by hiring a lawyer of his own and requesting not only that he retain possession of the mule but also that the court award him "one hundred dollars damages" for his former master "taking and withholding" the mule.

In a few cases, former slaves litigated suits against their former masters claiming funds that they had earned while they had been enslaved. In the 1869 North Carolina case of Lattimore v. Dixon, Abner Lattimore claimed that his former master Thomas Dixon had stolen over $1,000 in promissory notes that he had earned as a slave through livestock trading and money lending. In a limited number of other cases, the sexual violence that enslaved women experienced played a role in ensuing litigation. The 1877 Alabama case of Potter v. Gracie revolved around whether or not Mary Gracie -- who had a son fathered by her former master -- had been her former master's "mistress" after emancipation (a piece of property hung on the answer to this question).

In some of these cases, we can see the shifts in the interactions of former slaves and former masters taking place -- and at times such shifts seem to be spurred in part by the litigation itself. During the course of the litigation with his former master, for instance, Henry Buie changed his actual name, throwing off the surname of his former master and taking on the name Henry Parker. Appealing to the memory of their former masters could be a useful tactic to win cases, therefore, but litigation itself could also shift the relations of former masters and former slaves as well.

On my website,, I have put up transcripts and scans of the case files of a number of cases involving former slaves and former masters (including the cases mentioned here). After the jump below are also brief excerpts from the Lattimore v. Dixon and the Cowan v. Stamps cases.


Excerpts from trial record of Lattimore v. Dixon, 63 N.C. 356 (1869):

The Bill of Complaint of Abner Lattimore, a person of color, of said County, against Thomas Dickson of the same county. Humbly complaining unto your Honor, your Orator showeth that about the Fall of 1858 he was a slave + the property of the estate of Sam’l Lattimore decd. That said Lattimore, while he owned your Orator, allowed him at times the privilege of working for his own benefit. That by making the best use of these privileges, + by industry + economy, he saved considerable sums of money, which his said Master assisted him in investing in god notes bearing interest. That after the death of his Master + before the settlement of the estate, the family allowed him the same privileges + he accumulated other sums, which were invested in like manner – your Orator always making his notes payable to some white person who undertook to care for his welfare in this respect, your Orator having been told that notes made payable to a slave could not be collected. Further complaining, your Orator shows that matters were in this situation about the Fall of 1858, when the defendant persuaded your Orator to entrust his notes to his care + management, + as an inducement thereto informed him that he intended to purchase your Orator, + that he would allow him the same privilege as his former owner had + would manage his funds for his benefit, pay him the interest on his notes, + the principal when he was called on. That persuaded by these promises, + assurances on his part + believing it to be his interest to comply, he about the time above specified, to wit, in the fall of 1858, according to his best recollection (for being a slave + ignorant, he cannot be exact in dates) he placed in the names of the said Thomas Dickson, to be used + managed for his benefit as aforesaid, the following notes, among others...

[Excerpts from the testimony of Abner Lattimore:]
Ques 7th – State when you placed these notes in the hands of Thos Dixon and upon what terms and conditions
Ans – Some 8 or 10 days before Mr. Dixon purchased me I put all the aforementioned notes in his hands. I loaned him the notes, he was to pay me the interest and principal when I called for them. and he was to buy me + I agreed to wagon for him and he gave me a written order to trade for myself + if I got dissatisfied he was to pay me back the amounts of the notes + interest + if I could get any body else to buy me and give him what he give for me he was to give me up it is agreed that the date of the sale of Abner to Mr. Dixon was the 13th of September 1858.
Quest 8th – State whether you bought a horse from Tho’s Dixon when and what price + the circumstances connected with the trade
Ans – When I was living with Mr. Spangler Mr. Dixon come over in the bottom when we were at work and asked Mr. Spangler leave if he might sell to Ab the old horse. Mr. Spangler told him if I wanted to buy the horse I might I asked Mr. Dixon what he would take for the horse, he said $20, if I would pay him in 8 or 10 days, I agreed to give it, and sent the money by Mr. Spangler in 8 or 10 days thereafter to him, the horse was blind in one eye very poor + 14 or 15 years old + it was a very hard bargain...
Ques 10th – State how and for what reason you left the wagon + team as stated in the deposition of Harry Collins and whether Mr. Dixon at that time had been threatening to sell you.
Ans – I went along with Mr. Dixon to Yorkville when he started to the West. I asked him about my money. I tried to get him to give me a note for what he owed me + he would not do it he said he would not sell me + for me to haul on till Christman _ the morning he started to Yorkville Mr. McAfee came into Mr. Dixon’s store and Mr. Webb said to me, that Col McAfee was writing an advertisement to sell me next monday and that is the reason I left. I had forty dollars of his money Mr. Webb his portion give it to me the morning I left to go to Yorkville to exchange for North Carolina money, left by Mr. Dixon with Mr. Moon in Yorkville + when I left the team I kept the money + admit that I owe it on settlement with Mr Dixon I was out or now away about 7 or 8 months. I then came in and surrendered to Mr. Webb partner of Mr. Dixon in store in Shelby he then put me in jail. Mr. Webb + Mr. Sullivan came down to the Jail that night or the 2nd night. I told Mr. Webb to write to Mr. Dixon that I had ran away and had come back and surrendered and was very sorry for running away + that I would git a man to buy me + and would pay him for my lost time if he would pay me back the notes + interest on them. Mr. Webb came down to the Jail after he got the answer from Mr. Dixon + told me that Mr. Dixon said that he would not let me out unless he got a thousand dollars in silver. Mr. Jonas Bedford came down in about 4 weeks after I had been in jail and went to Mr. Webb and offered to buy me but had no silver but that he would give bond required to take me out of jail. I remained in Jail about 11 months Mr. Bedford bought me about the month of May 1861 + remained about 11 months...

Excerpts from trial record of Cowan v. Stamps, 46 Miss. 435 (1872):

To the Honorable Judge of the Probate Court of DeSoto County of State of Mississippi:

The joint and several answer of Frank Cowan and Sarah Cowan his wife Mathew Cowan Cloe Cowan John Cowan Andy Cowan and Eliza Cown his wife Charlotte Cowan Eliza Cowan Resin Cowan Mary Cowan who are all adults and of Robert Cowan Aron Cowan Simeon Cowan Amanda Cowan Cornelia Cowan Silas Cowan Joshua Cowan and Franklin Cowan children of Frank and Sarah Cowan Zachariah Cowan Hannah Cowan James Cowan Martha Ann Cowan Jerry Cowan and William Cowan children of Andry + Eliza Cowan and Richard Cowan and Mariah Cowan children of Eliza Cowan Henry Cowan George Cowan Augustus Cowan and Sarah Jane Cowan children of Mary Cowan ... to the Petition of J.B. Stamps Executor of the Last Will and testament of Abner B. Cowan decd filed in this Hon Court on the day of 1868. the said last will which is dated 12th February 1850 the said testator declared that it was his will and desire that every of his negro Slaves male and female with their increase Should be sent to Africa there to become and remain a free people, that at that date the said slaves numbered Sixteen but in the Same clause the testator declared that it was his intention to embrace all such negro slaves as he might own at the time of his death, and your respondents show that they together with Charles Cowan and Ann Cowan a child of respondent Frank both of whom have died Since the death of the said testator are and were the several persons named designated and appointed in and by the Said will as the negro Slaves male + female of him the Said testator and who by a subsequent clause in Said will hereafter to be mentioned were to become his sole and only legatees and distributes…

…and your respondents now show that in and by said will it was the manifest intention and prevailing desire of the testator that your respondents who had faithfully served him during his life term as his slave, and who had contributed to his comfort ease and happiness should at his death become free from further bondage and be the recipients of his bounty and favour and that they should enjoy after his death the bounty thus bestowed upon them by his said will as soon as they were able so to do as free persons capable of inheriting the same – And your respondents further show that in and by the proclamation of the President of the United States duly made on the 1st January 1863 all persons held as slaves within certain designated States then in rebellion should thereceforward be and become free persons – and that in said proclamation the State of Mississippi was designated as one of such States then in rebellion that not withstanding the said proclamation and their right thereby to be free, and the further fact that they were then within the lives of the United States army who were ordered to support and maintain the freedom of all Slaves And your respondents adhearing to their ancient duty and love for the said testator who had ever been kind and considerate toward them they remained with him – laboring for him and sustaining him in all his orders and directions as dutifully as at any time during their bondage and so continued until the period of the death of their said master in April 1864 and they have remained upon the homestead plantation of said testator doing the best they could under the direction the said Stamps and other friends of the said Cowan decd to the present time. That on or about the day of 18 The Congres of the Unietd States passed an act commonly known as the Civil Rights bill, when it was declared that all persons theretofore held to service and labor as slaves should be fully confirmed in their freedom, and should become citizens of the United States (if born therein, and your Respt show that they and each of them are or were so born in the United States) and that they should be capable of buying selling holding having and inheriting property as other citizens of the United States might or could do.

They further show that in and by the constitution of the State of Mississippi by the people of said State in convention assembled in or about the month of August 1865 –it was declared as the organic law that Slavery having been destroyed in Said State should not thereafter exist and requiring the Legislature of said State at its next setting thereafter to provide by law for the protection and security of the person and property of the freedmen of the State – and that by the act of the Legislature of said State of Mississippi of 25 November 1865 and that of 21st February 1867 in amendment thereof passed in pursuance of the Said Constitutional provisions gave to your respondents and other freedmen the Same right to acquire receive have hold and inherit real and personal estate as was enjoyed by other citizens of the Said State.

They further Show that in and by the said Proclamation of the President of the United States and the acts of Congress, the constitution of the State of Mississippi and the laws thereof passed in pursuance thereto and by the price of other acts + laws of the United States and the State of Mississippi to which they pray leave to refer to these respondents were made citizens of the United States & of the State of Mississippi and entitled to all the lawful rights of such citizens to take have inherit and hold any and all estates that may bequested to them and that they are advised that they have the right now as such freedmen and citizens of the State of Mississippi to inherit and take the estate so bequested to them by the Said Testator A.B. Cowan freed from any and all conditions of departing from the State of Mississippi and residing in the said continent of Africa that this provision was not intended in the said will as a condition precedent to the taking of the said estate under said will but as a means of more surely carrying out the testators most human intention of granting them these respondents their freedom and providing a competency for them, they show now that the intention of the testator may be fully carried out without this requirement which by the laws aforesaid has become unnessary and useless – they show and state that they do not desire the said lands and other property to be sold by the Executor beyond what is necessary to pay the just debts of the said Testator + the expenses of the administration and that they have been informed and believe and charge the truth to be that the said Executor has now paid of all the Said debts and has a surplus of funds of said estate in his hands and that said Administration having been granted to the said Stamps more than one year since they are entitled to have as they are advised, the said estate distributed to them they being the sole and only legatees and distributes thereof they state that it is not their interest or desire that the same should be Sold either for the purpose division among themselves or for any other purpose, but that it is their desire and their intention that the whole residence of Said estate after paying off all the debts should be [illegible] and delivered over to them as tenants in common. Wherefore they pray the premises considered that this answer may be taken and considered as a crop Bill to the said petition of the Said Executor J.B. Stamps, and that under the proper process of this Hon Court he may be required to answer the Same. That his said petition to sell the said estate may be disallowed and dismissed upon final hearing, and that your Honor will upon the due inspection of said last will and testament the condition of said estate order and direct the said Executor to make his final account at a day to be fixed, + that in the mean time order that the lands mentioned in the said petition shall be surrendered to your Right, by him upon the execution of Such bond and with such penalties and conditions to refund any and all sums as may be required to pay the just debts of said estate if any remaining unpaid as your Honor shall think fit and proper which they now have tender in manner and form in this Hon Court shall direct if it Shall be ascertained by the answer of Said Exr J.B. Stamps that then yet remain any debts due by Said estate and may it pleas your Honor to require the said Executor to set forth what other lands or any interest therein the Said A.B. Cowan held at the time of his deth and what disposition thereof if any has been made by him since that time setting forth the same by particular description.

And may it pleas your Honor to grant them all proper process and orders and all other and general relief which they may Show themselves equitably entitled to.
L.V. Dixon Sol for Respondants

For a more extended transcript of these cases and scans of some of the original record of these cases, as well as transcripts and scans of other cases involving fomerly enslaved black litigants and their former masters or former masters' heirs, see the Teaching Resources section of my website: