In my previous post, I wrote about the “archives” I used to research Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South. Today’s post is part two.
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Searching lower court records involving black litigants is tricky. Over the course of several years, I developed a method for searching for and working with local court records. Because these cases are unpublished and unavailable outside of the county and parish court of origin, I began by traveling to the clerks’ offices to locate the extant records. Typically, they are not indexed, and docket books summarizing cases are few and far between. Sometimes an entire decade (or decades) of cases is missing.
Finding cases that involved free black or enslaved litigants required examining each box, drawer, or trash bag of trial court records beginning with the earliest ones (this varied in each county, but all opened their doors and began hearing cases in the late 18th or early 19th century) and continuing until the courthouse closed its doors during the Civil War (this also varied by county). As a research method, sampling every fifth (or pick your number) box or drawer of cases would not produce representative results. Many of these records are not organized by date or type—or even organized at all. In Claiborne County, Mississippi, for example, cases from 1820 could be filed in the same drawer as cases from three decades later (and the drawer labeled “miscellaneous”).
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In order to get a sense of the presence of black litigants in the antebellum southern courts, the meaning of that presence, and how that presence might change over time, I had to look through everything. It took me several years (I traveled to the region and stayed two-to-four months at a time one-to-two times a year until I managed to read all of the extant records). Searching for black litigants was a daunting task because it meant reading through thousands and thousands of cases. But by law, the Mississippi and Louisiana courts had to identify the race of litigants and witnesses of color with the designation “fpc” if free and “slave” if enslaved. Of course, clerks and lawyers did not always do this. But just because the designation is missing, we cannot assume that the plaintiff or defendant was white. Indeed, black litigants were common, and many sued more than once. If the designation was missing, I attempted to ascertain an individual’s status in other ways. Then I took digital photographs of the entire case and organized those photos into separate files (such that I could easily find them later). Next, I read the case and entered a number of pertinent details into an Excel database, including: case number, name of complainant and defendant, filing dates, outcome (if known), race and gender of litigants, names of witnesses, lawyers, and judges, keywords identifying the type of case, and notes about the circumstances of the case.
In the end, I found more than 1,000 civil cases involving free black and enslaved litigants. As I have mentioned in a previous post, they sued whites and other people of color over a wide range of disagreements—from debt recovery to lawsuits for freedom. What is more, these extant cases reveal much about the networks black litigants formed, the language they used to petition the local courts, and the particular dynamics of black Americans’ legal claims-making in communities throughout the Natchez district.
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Finding these records is hard enough; interpreting them brings different challenges. Often the records are incomplete, missing relevant petitions or testimony. Final judgments are frequently absent, making outcomes unclear. And many cases are formulaic. Clerks, lawyers, and other officials also mediated the evidence. Moreover, it is difficult to ascertain what information court officials withheld from the record—from the common knowledge to the hearsay. Genre, form, and the type of legal action people chose to take (or even could take) also conditioned what people could say or do in court.
But as I have written in the book, within the given constraints, remarkable space exists for performing all sorts of operations. Genre limits what people can say, but it also allows people to say certain things in court and make that speech recognizable as a legal claim. Speakers can sift or manipulate facts and events as they chose to sift them (and then make a claim to what is “fact”). They can make normative claims—claims that insist that what happened is not what should have happened. In so doing, they can also invoke the state and demand that the state take responsibility for making things happen as the claimant said it should. Finally, by making claims in court, litigants compel their opponents to answer in kind. In my next post, I will discuss some of these claims.