From Migrant to Litigant: Emigration to Liberia in Court Cases in the U.S. South

Thursday, January 7, 2010: 4:00 PM
Manchester Ballroom F (Hyatt)
Melissa L. Milewski , New York University, Atlanta, GA
I argue that travel and connections with Liberia emboldened former slaves to claim a greater measure of power in the stronghold of their former enslavement – southern U.S. courts. Using these court cases, I examine how connections between former slaves and former masters continued across the Atlantic before and after the U.S. Civil War as well as the dramatic shifts in their relations as former slaves returned to the U.S. to prosecute cases about Liberia in southern courts. In the antebellum U.S. South, slaveholders planning to emancipate their slaves in Liberia often provided funds in their wills for their slaves’ settlement in the African country. After the Civil War, former slaves dramatically changed their relations with their former masters by demanding in court the funds set aside in wills to pay for their settlement in Liberia. In some court cases, Liberian residents returned to the U.S. to demand the property left them in wills, boldly claiming the new legal rights gained by black Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In other cases, freedpeople who had been slated to immigrate to Liberia as slaves but never relocated bravely declared their right to choose where to live by arguing that they did not need to emigrate to gain their inheritances. Black southerners also immigrated to Liberia of their own volition after emancipation as part of a movement of disillusioned black people leaving the U.S. South, only to later return to pursue civil cases against white southerners. In all of these kinds of cases, former slaves used their former masters’ wills setting aside funds for emigration and their transnational connections to Liberia to make their arguments before southern state courts, even after they had lost many other rights and had difficulty pursuing other types of court cases.
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