Ex-slaves and Their Government: Rethinking Black Politics and the Law in Emancipated America

AHA Session 315
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Room 601 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Amy Murrell Taylor, University of Kentucky
All in the Family: The Black Household in Reconstruction-Era Southern Courts
Giuliana Perrone, University of California, Santa Barbara
Black Veterans and the New Auction Block
Dale Kretz, Washington University in St. Louis
Gregory P. Downs, University of California, Davis

Session Abstract

Historians typically narrate the decades after Reconstruction as a time when the government abandoned freedpeople to their own devices.  This is not without good reason, given the withdrawal of troops, the rise of paramilitary violence, and the effective nullification of the constitutional rights of freedpeople in the post-Confederate South.  The papers in this session challenge the abandonment thesis by detailing the many ways in which former slaves interacted with government officials from wartime emancipation to the end of the nineteenth century.  This session investigates theories and practices of state building, the family, and the law alongside broader reformulations of citizenship.  It addresses historical questions of the first order:  How would former slaves encounter and negotiate access to state power?  How did their perceptions, tactics, and strategies change as the years widened the gulf between emancipation and the present?  How did the government make itself felt in the lives of former slaves, and vice versa? 

Collectively, the papers explore how freedpeople engaged several theaters of state activity, including the military, the courts, and the modern bureaucracy, during and after the period conventionally known as Reconstruction.  Giuiana Perrone examines 700 southern court cases related to slavery in her paper, “All in the Family: The Black Household in Reconstruction-Era Southern Courts.”  She argues that freedpeople turned to courts to exercise their right to create and define their own households while at the same time resisting official attempts to shape families.  In her paper “Rethinking the Role of State Courts in the Lives of Black Southerners, 1865-1900,” Melissa Milewski analyzes the ways in which black litigants pursued their criminal and civil cases against white southerners in eight states.  More successful in their civil suits, formerly enslaved litigants maneuvered their access to the state and worked to gain leverage on the legal system.  Rounding out issues of the state, the law, and the legacy of slavery is Dale Kretz’s paper, “Black Veterans and the New Auction Block.”  It analyzes the surprising politics of the medical examinations performed by white southern physicians on black pension applicants.  Despite the access to federal power opened up by the Pension Bureau, Kretz’s work probes the ironic situation that many thousands of formerly enslaved pensioners confronted: having their bodies examined for laboring capacities by federally deputized physicians, many of whom had direct ties to the old regime of slavery.

The complex relations of slavery did not end in 1865, but were dragged into the twentieth century by its survivors.  If emancipation conferred “nothing but freedom,” this panel shows how ex-slaves determined to have full-bodied rights and liberties.  Ever within the shadow of slavery, they navigated access to state power as legal citizens.  With special attention to their methods and motives, this panel suggests new ways to conceptualize how freedpeople worked to remake themselves, their government, and the American nation-state.

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