In my teaching, I often make a point to use—and discuss—the research I did for Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South (the cases, findings, implications, and so on). One question that undergraduates, in particular, almost always ask me is: “what is your favorite case?”
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My response varies. I have many “favorites.” Sometimes my answer involves evidence that felt particularly hard won, such as one of the cases I found amongst the bugs and rats in a Plaquemine, Louisiana, storage shed (research I mentioned in a previous post). It involved a free black man who chased a white man on horseback for miles, screaming insults and waving a loaded pistol. Sometimes my response to the “favorites” question involves the women of the Belly family, who took to the courts with regularity to protect and convey their property, to enforce the terms of their contracts, and to adjudicate a number of other disputes. They even sued their husbands. But most often my answer involves the case that I used to open the book—the case that I see as emblematic of the larger points about personhood and property that I make throughout. This case involved an assault, and I will share excerpts of my discussion of this lawsuit below.
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On Sunday, September 6, 1857, two white men, William Calmes and John Buford, violently seized, whipped, and attempted to kidnap Valerien Joseph in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. Empowered by their duties as slave patrollers, Calmes and Buford entered the property of another white man in search of runaway slaves. There, they came upon Joseph, a free black carpenter engaged in his work. Although Joseph had not given them any reason to believe he was a runaway, and despite the protests of onlookers and Joseph’s own declarations that he was a free man, Calmes and Buford grabbed Joseph and attempted to carry him away. When others tried to intervene, Calmes yelled that he “would do what he pleased,” for he intended to seize and then sell Joseph as a slave. In order to subdue their prey, they took turns beating him in the head with a large stick. Then Calmes removed Joseph’s clothing, forced him on his belly, and whipped his naked body with a cowhide “forty to fifty times” while an armed Buford stood guard to prevent others from assisting their bloodied captive. Eventually the onlookers helped pull Joseph from the clutches of his captors, and he managed to escape.
Five days after the attack, Joseph sued Calmes and Buford in the Ninth Judicial District Court, a local trial court held in Pointe Coupee Parish. He demanded damages: the “illegal and wicked acts of said Calmes and Buford,” Joseph insisted, “have caused your petitioner damage to the amount of fifteen hundred dollars.” To that end, he requested that the white judge, A. D. M. Haralson, summon his attackers to court for a public accounting of their offenses against him, and “after due course of law,” “they be condemned” to pay him $1,500, plus interest and court costs. The defendants denied the charges against them, and the case went to trial. The court subpoenaed the testimony of several witnesses, and each verified Joseph’s claims: one white man testified that Calmes and Buford “fell upon Joseph” and “pulled him out of the yard and struck him on the head with a stick.” Another white man (in charge of organizing slave patrols) testified that Calmes and Buford were not in fact on patrol that day. And still other white witnesses relayed that Joseph was “born free” of an Indian mother and a black father. After hearing the evidence, a white jury found for the plaintiff and issued a judgment for damages: $300 from Calmes and $200 from Buford. The judge denied the defendants’ request for a new trial and ordered the men to pay their debt. Both men also faced criminal charges for Joseph’s attack, but the outcome is unknown.
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That a black man would take his white attackers to court in the first place seems paradoxical in itself. That he would win is yet more surprising. But perhaps more interesting still is how Joseph framed his suit.
Joseph did not begin his petition to the court with a description of the violence inflicted upon him (as one might in a lawsuit for damages). Instead, he framed the case as a debt action, using the language of property and obligation. Calmes and Buford, he insisted, owed him money: “The petition of Valerien Joseph, a free man of color, residing in the parish, Respectfully shows,” he began, “That William Calmes and [John] Buford, residents of the parish aforesaid, are justly and legally indebted, in solido, unto him in the sum of fifteen hundred dollars, with interest of 50% from judicial demand until paid.” They owed him this amount, moreover, for their illegal assault on his property: his body.
The jury agreed and awarded him $500 for his trouble. Buford paid the $200 shortly after the trial, but Calmes ignored the judgment. When the amount went unpaid over a year later, Joseph initiated additional legal proceedings against him. This time, Judge Haralson ordered the sheriff to seize Calmes’s property, sell it at auction, and settle his obligation to Joseph. Although Calmes absconded to Mississippi before the court could seize his property, Joseph continued to press his case. He made another white man, John A. Warren, a party to the lawsuit and pursued garnishment proceedings against him. Warren possessed property belonging to Calmes, property that could be seized and sold. When Warren failed to attend court, Joseph received a judgment against him (in default). On April 20, 1860, mere months before Louisiana left the Union to join a slaveholders’ republic, the court ordered Warren to pay Joseph $350 (the original amount plus court costs and interest). When Warren did not pay, the sheriff seized his property, sold it at auction, and provided Joseph with the proceeds. One year later, almost to the day, shots would be fired at Ft. Sumter initiating a war over the right to hold black people as property.
At work in Joseph’s “demand” are a series of interlocking understandings about the relation of one’s property to one’s person, both in the sense of one’s physical body and in the more abstract sense of one’s ability to be seen at law as someone who “counts” such that he or she can make a claim. These relations between one’s person, one’s property, and one’s legal claims form the subject of this book. To properly understand Joseph’s suit, why he went to court, why he insisted on describing assault as a matter of debt and obligation, why he won, and why he eventually managed to have a white man’s property placed on the auction block, requires that we re-evaluate our understandings of the relationship between black people, claims-making, racial exclusion, and the legal system in the antebellum South more broadly.
This case raises questions about who had access to the power of the law and under what circumstances. Calmes and Buford certainly expected that they did. After all, they were white men, men whose race and status gave them claims to legal and political standing. They were slave patrollers, empowered by state statute to detain possible runaways. As slaveholders, they held property rights in black people. Thus, with the law on their side, they might then get away with kidnapping and selling a free black man. Their property, however, ended up on the auction block. Joseph, by contrast, harnessed the power of the state to serve his interests and to do his bidding: he sued two white men, bound them in obligation to him through debt, and compelled the courts to seize white property and sell it at auction to settle his claims and compensate him for his degradation. The court record of the slave South is rife with stories like Joseph’s.