Thursday, November 23, 2017

Teaching Resource: Excerpts from case file of Leonard v. Roebuck

As part of my guest blogging this month about the research in my new book Litigating Across the Color Line, I wanted to share excerpts from some of the archival case files of civil cases involving black litigants that I feature in my book. On my personal website,, I'll also be sharing more case file excerpts in the next few weeks that could be used alongside my book for teaching.
Courtesy Alabama Dept. of Archives & History

Today, I'm sharing an excerpt from the Alabama case of Leonard v. Roebuck (1907), which is featured in Chapter 6, my chapter examining African Americans' fraud cases against white southerners between 1900 and 1920. After inheriting 80 acres of land from her father, the plaintiff, Lurena Roebuck, encountered a series of threats to her land. One morning in 1906, while she was still trying to fend off local whites' claims to her land, a white saloon owner named John Leonard came to her house and tried to buy 20 acres that were in dispute. Eventually he pressured her into signing a document selling the land. However, Roebuck remained unsatisfied with the transaction and soon consulted a white lawyer. He discovered that the document she had signed had transferred all 80 of her acres to the white saloon owner. In response, Roebuck brought a civil case against the white saloon owner, alleging fraud. In her testimony, Roebuck emphasized her lack of business understanding, seemingly to strengthen her legal claims of fraud. At the same time, she asserted her legal rights and her ideas of economic justice. Here are excerpts from her testimony in the trial proceedings:

"Lurener Roebuck v. John F. Leonard ) In Chancery in Birmingham, Ala.

Testimony taken before the Register 11/17/1906.
Lurener Roebuck, being first duly sworn testified:
I am the complainant in this cause and am 22 years of age and reside in Jefferson County, Alabama. Mr. John F. Leonard, the respondent, is over the age of 21 years of age and resides in Jefferson County, Alabama. I live about a mile and a half in the Country above East Lake. I was living there on and prior to the 30th day of May, 1906. Prior to that date I was the owner of the NE 1/4 of the SE 1/4 and the SE 1/4 of the SE 1/4, Sec.30, Tp. 17, R. 1 West, in Jefferson County, Alabama. I am the only child of Jackson Ellard, deceased. He owned the land in his life time; he entered it. I know Mr. John F. Leonard. On the 30th day of May, 1906, he came out to my house to see me. He came to my house at about 11 A.M. on that day and asked me would I sell him my claim in 20 acres of land that Mr. Dougherty was in possession; I told him I did not know what about it; that I did not want to sell it; and he said that makes no difference he wanted to buy it; that Mr. Dougherty sent him out there. I told him that I did not know anything about it; that my uncle was attending to it, and he said that Mr. Dougherty said he had already seen my uncle about it and he said it would be all right. I told him I didn’t want to sell it unless I could see my uncle. And he said, Oh well I want to buy it, and Mr. Dougherty sent me out here; and he said that he would give me $10.00 down then if I would sell it. He said that if it was not agreeable to my husband that he would give me the money back; I told him that I did not want to take that, and he told me to take it anyhow and me and my husband could come into town and sign that I was willing to take it. He went ahead and gave me $10.00 and told me to sign my name that he had paid me ten dollars, and I signed my name and he told me then to come into town and get the rest of the money if my husband was willing to it.

When we came into town he was not willing to take that for it, and I offered him the money back and he agreed to give $35.00, and paid $5.00 that day, and I came back and he paid me the other $20.00; he paid me in all $35.00. I told him that I was not satisfied with it. He says well you have got to be; I have got the whole forty now. I told him I did not sell but 20 acres. He did not ask me to sell him but 20 acres. Mamma told him that she had something to say in it, and she was going to see if she could not get it back. He said all right that he had done bought it and had the whole thing. We come on away then and left him alone.

We then come to see Mr. Terry about it. He told me he would do all he could for me. He said he would come over here and see how much the deed was for. (Objection by Mr. Vary to what Mr. Terry said on ground that it is hearsay evidence, and that it is irrelevant and immaterial and because the witness W.K. Terry is here to testify himself.) Mr. Terry came back and wrote to me that the deed called for 80 acres. (Objected to on ground that it is not responsive to the question.)

I went back to Mr. Leonard and told him I would give him his money back. Before that time I thought I had sold him 20 acres. Before I went to Mr. Terry’s office I did not know that I had deed him more that 20 acres. After I found out that I had deeded him more than 20 acres, I went to see Mr. Leonard when I came back to town, after receiving a letter from Mr. Terry. I told him that he had got the whole 80 and I did not know I was deeding him the whole 80. He said, “Well you have.” I asked him then would he give me the land back and take his money and he said “No. if I lose, I lose.” that he would not take the money back. I told him I wanted him to take it back, or I would try the law about it, and he said for me to tell my lawyer to pop his whip. I told him all right. Then I left. I told him I would give him back the money, but I did not have it with me at that time. He said he did not want it.

I am colored. I have never had any experience in business affairs. I know nothing about land numbers. I do not know how many acres of land there are in quarter sections. Mr. Leonard read that deed over to me. When he read it over to me, I did not know how many acres there were in the deed. He said 20 acres. Mr. Leonard said that he was buying the 20 acres that Mr. Dougherty was in possession of. I relied on what Mr. Leonard told me. I sold it to him for 20 acres because he told me it was 20 acres. That land is worth $30.00 per acre. The 30th of May, 1906, it was worth $30.00 an acre..."*

For more of the case to use for research and teaching, see an extended excerpt and scans of several pages of the case (provided with the permission of the Alabama Department of Archives & History) on my personal website,

*Leonard v. Roebuck, 152 Ala. 312 (1907). The full archival case file is located in the Alabama Department of Archives & History, Montgomery, Alabama.