Monday, April 2, 2018

Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South

Many thanks to the editors for inviting me to guest blog about my new book, Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South. Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing stories about the research I conducted and the challenges of not only finding that material but also interpreting it. I will also discuss a few emblematic individuals and their cases, as well as what I see as the significance of those cases. And I will make a plea for local court records—for their preservation, but also their importance in our research and teaching. I begin today, however, with a description of the book.

This book is a historical study of free and enslaved African Americans’ use of the local courts in the antebellum American South. Specifically, I investigate unpublished and largely unexplored lower court records from the Natchez district of Mississippi and Louisiana between 1800 and 1860 in which free black and enslaved litigants sued whites and other African Americans. This is a study of private law claims. Black plaintiffs in civil suits remain a little known aspect of the legal history of the slave South.
For those readers less familiar with this area of the Deep South, the Natchez district is the plantation region along the Mississippi River (roughly) between Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. By the early nineteenth century, the cotton counties of western Mississippi and the cotton and sugar parishes of eastern Louisiana were emphatically slave societies: the region’s economy depended on slavery, and slaveholders’ interests dominated politics. Natchez, Mississippi, was home to “Forks-of-the-Road,” one of the antebellum South’s busiest slave markets. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the district’s slaveholders represented some of the largest importers of slaves in the booming domestic slave trade, and they were among the richest men in the nation.
Map courtesy of Danielle Picard
Slavery influenced every aspect of life in the Natchez district, from the realities of everyday domination to its elaboration in the black codes of the period. Lawmakers in Mississippi and Louisiana designed legislation to maintain the institution of slavery and ensure that people of African descent enjoyed few legal rights. These laws turned people into property, denied them civil and political rights, and subjected them to harsh criminal punishments. In addition, both states limited free black people's ability to seek redress in court. They also burdened them with onerous administrative and registration requirements that affected their everyday lives.
Despite the restrictions they faced and the humiliations imposed upon them, my research shows that black Americans found some legal redress for wrongs done to them and debts owed to them. Trial court records remind us that people of African descent were not just objects of law; they were wielders of it. Free blacks and slaves resided at the center of antebellum southern legal culture—as objects of regulation and punishment, certainly, and as active protectors of their own interests.
So how do we know this?
We know about this primarily through the extensive documentation produced by the civil courts in the Natchez district—in particular, the trial court records from Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes in Louisiana and Adams and Claiborne counties in Mississippi. I chose these four counties because of their centrality to the region and their location along the Mississippi River, but also because the trial court records from this time period still exist in these locations. This is unusual. Many southern courthouses burned to the ground during the Civil War or experienced floods that destroyed the early records. In other counties in the region, I found that court employees sometimes threw away or burned old records because of the lack of storage space. Even in the four places that I selected for my research, the extant records are in danger of disappearing. (I’ll be discussing the records themselves—as well as my research process—in a future post).
Photo by the author
After digging through all the extant lower court records (often held in basements and storage sheds) from these four counties, I found over 1,000 trial court cases involving black litigants using law on their own behalf. They sued whites and other people of color to enforce the terms of their contracts, recover unpaid debts, recuperate back wages, and claim damages for assault. They sued in conflicts over cattle, land, slaves, and other property, for their freedom and for divorce, and to resolve a number of other disagreements. In addition, free people of color used the courts to register their marriages, probate their wills, donate their property to their children or wives, emancipate their family members, and request official family meetings dedicated to allocating resources. Enslaved men and women engaged their owners in courtroom battles over personal status and freedom and the status and freedom of their children and kin. And sometimes, in a few rare instances, slaves took whites to court to recover unpaid debts for money they had loaned them.
This kind of presence is unexpected. We have long viewed the southern courts as institutions that rigidly enforced racial hierarchies and protected the property interests of white slaveholders. That said, while it is certainly important to recognize the presence of black litigants in antebellum southern courtrooms, it is perhaps more important to unpack the significance of such litigation. Thus, this is not simply a story of the fact of black litigiousness. Rather, it is also a story of the meaning of black litigiousness.
The book focuses much of its attention on claims to legal personhood and civic inclusion. These were claims about who had access to the power of law, certainly, but they were also claims about who counts. These were claims to inclusion and membership. Indeed, for black litigants civic inclusion had a participatory function, one that involved the capacity to act as an independent person at law and participate in the public sphere; but civic inclusion also had a symbolic function: the recognition that this person was worthy of staking a claim.
Litigation, then, represents a moment in which white judges, juries, defendants, witnesses, and audiences in the gallery were forced to confront and recognize the claims of those they believed were intrinsically inferior. This book, at its core, is an attempt to explore the consequences of that recognition.