Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South

Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South

Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South

Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South

Synopsis

Fathers of Conscience examines high-court decisions in the antebellum South that involved wills in which white male planters bequeathed property, freedom, or both to women of color and their mixed-race children. These men, whose wills were contested by their white relatives, had used trusts and estates law to give their slave partners and children official recognition and thus circumvent the law of slavery. The will contests that followed determined whether that elevated status would be approved or denied by courts of law.

Bernie D. Jones argues that these will contests indicated a struggle within the elite over race, gender, and class issues--over questions of social mores and who was truly family. Judges thus acted as umpires after a man's death, deciding whether to permit his attempts to provide for his slave partner and family. Her analysis of these differing judicial opinions on inheritance rights for slave partners makes an important contribution to the literature on the law of slavery in the United States.

Excerpt

When a white man freed an enslaved woman and her children in his
will, for example, did that mean he found her lifelong service worth
the reward of emancipation, or did the manumission conceal a more
intimate relationship?

—JOSHUA D. ROTHMAN, Notorious in the Neighborhood

THIS BOOK CONSIDERS HOW WHITES of the antebellum South negotiated inheritance rights when slave beneficiaries were related by blood to their late owners. Were slave owners who partnered with enslaved black women and who fathered mixed-race children able to manumit in their wills and grant property to the women and children? How did the men’s white relatives react to such bequests? When judges hearing cases of contested wills responded in the appellate courts, what type of language did they use in describing the men? How did that use of language determine whether the wills would stand? What was the influence of changing manumission requirements over time on judicial decision making?

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