Slavery Historian Is Hooked `You Learn about Divorce, Brutality, Violence, Interracial Sex . . . '

Article excerpt

Historian Loren Schweninger finds moving tales of courage, love and inhumanity when he pores over dusty court files detailing the days of slavery.

"The drama in these documents is unbelievable," said Schweninger, who has copied more than 12,500 legal records from nine Southern states since 1991. "You learn about divorce, brutality, violence, interracial sex, beatings, runaway slaves and so much more."

One of his favorite stories is that of Hannah, an elderly slave from Bourbon County, Ky., who was sold at auction as part of an estate settlement.

A lawyer's document said the highest bid was 50 cents: "She could be sold for no more, owing to her age and decrepitude."

Schweninger, a specialist on Southern history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said it's hard not to be affected by such a tale.

"What could she have been thinking?" he said. "What must have gone through her mind when it hit her that she didn't even bring a whole dollar on the auction block?"

Schweninger's research project is titled: "Race, Slavery and Free Blacks: Petitions to Southern Legislatures and County Courts, 1775-1866." He hopes to complete the project next year. His research is being funded by grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

Petitions are court documents that request some specific action, such as freeing a slave or granting a divorce. …