Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Cromwell Book Prize to Welch

In addition to supporting dissertation and article prizes, the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation also generously supports a book prize, for "the best book in the field of American legal history by an early career scholar." This year's Cromwell Book Prize went to Kimberly M. Welch (Vanderbilt University) for Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

Here's the citation from this year's Cromwell Book Prize Committee:
Black Litigants is a tour de force of meticulous and arduous archival work, and the slow piecing together of documents to construct a nuanced, sophisticated and rich narrative. The work produces new historical knowledge regarding how free and enslaved black litigants in the antebellum South used local courts to make civil claims regarding debt, property, and contracts. Adding to this archival feat is how Welch writes with a strong and confident voice exploring what these cases tell us about law, race, and the slaveholding South.

Using local court documents from two parishes in Louisiana and two counties in Mississippi, Welsh constructs a detailed narrative of how some black people used courts to sue white people in local courts. The work incorporates and is in dialogue with other excellent scholarship on enslaved people who brought freedom suits. Yet where freedom suits had such significant consequences, Welch locates and analyzes more mundane and everyday claims. In fact, one of Welch’s central arguments is the very fact that such cases were unexceptional and that black plaintiffs won suits against whites on a regular basis. Welch carefully analyzes why this might be the case simultaneously recognizing the agency of black litigants, how law propped up and structured white supremacy, and how law was not hegemonic. Rather Black Litigants illustrates that judges, lawyers, and white people more generally had multiple competing interests and that, at least at times, ideas of property won out over, or at least co-existed with, ideas of white supremacy and slaveholding.

Welch provides a rich social history of local southern courts while also conveying a subtle and nuanced understanding of what law even is. She theorizes that law is a highly stylized language of claim making, a discourse, a way of shaping and telling stories that courts, lawyers, and others could recognize. Indeed, Welch herself provides us with new and significant stories that enhance our understanding of how local on-the-ground law operates and the spaces in which black litigants could assert their personhood, even citizenship, and partake in the public legal sphere.
The members of this year's prize committee were Felice Batlan (chair) (Chicago-Kent College of Law); Sophia Z. Lee (University of Pennsylvania); Jonathan Levy (University of Chicago); and Thomas Mackey (University of Louisville). We thank them for their service and offer our congratulations to Kimberly Welch!

-- Karen Tani