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