“Clothed with All the Formalities Required by Law”: Federal Authority and Formalism in a Postemancipation Marriage Case

Friday, January 2, 2015: 1:20 PM
Conference Room D (Sheraton New York)
Diana I. Williams, University of Southern California
This presentation addresses the racial history of marriage law through close analysis of a striking yet long-overlooked interracial marriage case decided by the Louisiana Supreme Court in the early 1870s.  The court chose to sustain a formerly enslaved woman’s status as the widow of a white businessman, and that of her children as heirs. Building on the critical intersectional work of Adrienne Davis and Peggy Pascoe, I show that deference to white male authority—including that of a priest who officiated at their marriage—partly explains the court’s decision to allow a black family to inherit from their former owner, a white man who died in 1869 without leaving a will.  Yet the case also points to long-overlooked discontinuities in the racial legal history of marriage.  It reveals a contested history of church-state jurisdictional and definitional conflicts over marriage.  It illuminates a radicalized court that was temporarily interpreting controversial federal legislation as having “obliterated” state anti miscegenation laws and transformed people of color from supplicants for white charity to rights-bearing citizens entitled to inherit.  And it shows how anxieties about the new legal agency of black women after emancipation precipitated changes in the ways courts defined marriage, placing new emphasis on the importance of form, ceremony, documentation, and the appearance of race neutrality.