Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South

Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South

Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South

Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South

Synopsis

In the antebellum Natchez district, in the heart of slave country, black people sued white people in all-white courtrooms. They sued to enforce the terms of their contracts, recover unpaid debts, recuperate back wages, and claim damages for assault. They sued in conflicts over property and personal status. And they often won. Based on new research conducted in courthouse basements and storage sheds in rural Mississippi and Louisiana, Kimberly Welch draws on over 1,000 examples of free and enslaved black litigants who used the courts to protect their interests and reconfigure their place in a tense society.

To understand their success, Welch argues that we must understand the language that they used--the language of property, in particular--to make their claims recognizable and persuasive to others and to link their status as owner to the ideal of a free, autonomous citizen. In telling their stories, Welch reveals a previously unknown world of black legal activity, one that is consequential for understanding the long history of race, rights, and civic inclusion in America.

Excerpt

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. To subdue their prey, the two men took turns beating Joseph 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.

That two white men viciously assaulted a black man in the Deep South in 1857 is unsurprising. That they expected to do so with impunity was also not unusual. African-descended people—enslaved and free—repeatedly faced similar, unprovoked attacks. Surviving as a free person of color in a world in which blackness equaled slavery was no easy feat. By the late antebellum period, many white southerners in the region perceived free blacks as a threat to the social and racial order, and they dealt with them as such. It was not atypical for men like Calmes and Buford to insist that Joseph was a runaway slave. the presumption of slavery followed people of African descent, and . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.