Freedom Local: Race, Law, and Community in Antebellum America

AHA Session 100
Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Centennial Ballroom G (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Nikki Taylor, Texas Southern University
Kate Masur, Northwestern University

Session Abstract

A rich vein of scholarship has explored how free and enslaved African Americans contributed to national abolition movements in antebellum America. This panel shifts the focus from national to local antislavery campaigns. The papers explore how African Americans used the law in local settings to advance a more expansive vision of black freedom. Christopher Bonner studies a series of local fugitive slave trials in the mid-Atlantic. Tracing how information about these trial traveled, the paper foregrounds how the local dimensions of these cases shaped a push for new personal liberty laws in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Warren Milteer’s paper turns to examine how free African Americans incorporated while allies into their legal petitions for executive clemency. He shows that at times the dictates of the law clashed with local understandings of justice and that local relationships across the color line could help navigate the racial politics of the state’s legal code. Scott Heerman’s paper explores how free and enslaved African Americans developed legal literacy and a legal culture that helped slaves win freedom suits in Illinois. Looking at a series of local freedom suits in rural Illinois, the paper examines how African Americans could use local courts to escape bondage and fashion a freedom politics in the Midwest. Together the papers offer a local perspective on the relationship between race and the law in Antebellum America and argue that as African Americans sought to protect their freedom, they often turned to local, not national, venues. Looking at the Mid-Atlantic, Upper South, and Old Northwest this panel investigates the relationship between race in the law in venues that have too often been neglected by historians.
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