The Allure of the Judicial Archives: Writing the History of Slavery through Case Files, Dockets, and Silences

AHA Session 23
Friday, January 2, 2015: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Petit Trianon (New York Hilton, Third Floor)
Hendrik Hartog, Princeton University
Natalie Zemon Davis, University of Toronto
Ada Ferrer, New York University
Ariela J. Gross, University of Southern California
Jean M. Hébrard, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales
Martha S. Jones, University of Michigan
Rebecca J. Scott, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

In this round table session, the participants will draw upon their experience with judicial archives  to explore the complexity of the records of trial courts, municipal authorities, and police  inquiries. These documents offer rich evidence of encounters between enslaved people and the  state, and recent work in them has produced important insights into the intimate negotiations that  characterized local legal proceedings. At the same time, as Ariela Gross pointed out some years  ago, their interpretation demands care, restraint, and an appreciation for the intricacies of the  legal context in which they were generated.    The round table will thus both celebrate the allure of the judicial archive as a rich trove of  evidence about the history of slavery and freedom, and offer cautionary tales about the traps and  snares of these fascinating sources. Drawing on their work on the United States, Cuba, France,  Surinam, and Brazil, these six historians will share glimpses of freedom suits, inquiries into  alleged conspiracies, routine trips to local courthouses, and proceedings designed to uncover  crime and designate punishments. They will also offer hypotheses about the empty spaces in the  judicial record: the illegal enslavements never prosecuted, the testimony never offered, and the  vernacular forms of criminal justice and conflict resolution that left little or no written trace.

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