Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A Plea for Local Court Records

In my final post, I want to end with a plea, or better yet, a pitch. Use local court records, in your research and your teaching, and if you have the power to do so, help preserve them. These records are important for the stories they tell and the voices they feature.
Photo by the author
 In terms of my own research interests, the extant cases reveal a previously unknown world of black legal activity. In these records, you find the story of Milly, an enslaved Mississippi woman who sued a white man for sizable debts he that owed her. She won, even though she didn’t have the standing to initiate the suit in the first place. You will also meet Franchette, a free woman of color who sued Isabella Hawkins (a free black woman and former slave) three times to recover stolen property. In these lawsuits, Franchette accused Hawkins of stealing her cows and branding them with the letters “IH,” and in all three cases the court ordered Hawkins to return the cattle and pay Franchette damages. 

Hawkins herself was no stranger to the courtroom, although most often she did the suing. For instance, in 1834, Hawkins sued Frederick Haydt, a white man, for stealing her horse and attempting to sell it. The court ordered that Haydt return the horse. She even successfully sued the local sheriff after he seized her slave to settle a debt incurred by her former owner. She initiated this lawsuit against the sheriff only a few short years after her manumission. In addition, you see hundreds of enslaved people suing slaveholders for their freedom and claiming ownership over their bodies and their labor. In their suits for freedom, they also made claims to property they held as slaves and expected the court to help them safeguard it. They also demanded (and received) back wages, compensation for their unpaid labor.
Photo by the author
            But there are other things you can see as well. Because these records document the everyday workings of the court system in local communities, it was ordinary people who used them. Many of them were poor or living on the margins—people who, unlike wealthy planters, left few records about their lives behind. Many were illiterate, for instance, so they didn’t keep diaries or account books. As social historians and scholars of race and gender have long shown, court records provide some insight into the lives of those whose voices we may not have otherwise heard. Indeed, in some cases these are the only records we have that document the lives of non-elites.
            You also see married women—black and white—using the courts to their own advantage. This too might seem surprising, because in the early 19th century married women in the U.S. lacked a legal personality. Once they married, they forfeited their legal rights. Yet, they were present in the local legal record of Mississippi and Louisiana (and elsewhere), acting at law in their own names and making contracts and suing to enforce them. They also sued their own husbands for mismanaging their property or for damages for abuse. In other instances, they sued their husbands for divorce. Indeed, local court records show married women playing fast and loose with the doctrine of coverture, ignoring it when convenient and using it when it benefited them.
            You might find interesting anecdotes to tell your friends or new insults to hurl at your enemies. For instance, you could tell them about a Mississippi man who was charged with using deception to obtain a set of false teeth, or a Louisiana man who ran naked through a theater with ladies present and then stripped off his pants in court while the judge read the charges against him. Defamation lawsuits are full of great insults: like one of my favorites, “grasshopper from hell.”
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In using these records, you might even reach an audience outside of academia. For instance, right after the publication of my book, a descendant of one of the formerly enslaved litigants I wrote about emailed me. She found her family member in my index (his name came up in Google Books in an internet search), and she contacted me for more information about him and other members of her extended family. I have also been lucky enough to meet several descendants of the Belly/Ricard family, a family I discuss in a chapter-long case study at the end of my book.

            In addition, these records make great teaching tools. I refer to the insights I have gained from reading them in my lectures, and I make them available to my undergraduate students for use in our class discussions (in classes that range from women’s and gender history to legal history to the history of U.S. slavery). I also provide copies for both undergraduate and graduate students interested in a wide range of research topics. As I tell my students each time I teach with them, you should work with these types of records not only because you might enjoy being a voyeur or at least a witness to everyday life, but also because they demand a particular set of skills. They teach us how to figure out a complex social landscape and how to think more robustly about power; and they teach us how organizations work on the ground (rather than how organizations think they work). In other words, working with trial court records makes us attentive to what people value and the lengths they are willing to go to in order to protect those things. Such skills are valuable to the history major, but also beyond.
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But if for no other reason, using local court records in your own work could bring increased interest to fragile records and, perhaps most importantly, funding opportunities to preserve and care for records that are in danger of disappearing from history.

Thanks again to the editors for the invitation to guest blog. Readers, there are copies of representative cases on my website ( And if you have any questions about Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South or want to talk about accessing, using, or preserving local courts records, please get in touch.