Bargaining Freedom or Buying Time: Forging Black Futures in Antebellum Courts

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 4:10 PM
State Ballroom (Palmer House Hilton)
Alisha J. Hines, Wake Forest University
Local records from nineteenth century St. Louis and other cities in the Mississippi River valley reveal that black men and women were regular litigants in southern courts. Black litigants had their petitions reviewed by justices of the peace, their claims were often supported by the testimony of white witnesses, and their cases were argued by white attorneys. Even if they were unsuccessful, the black men and women who actively engaged the law to pursue their various interests challenge existing assumptions about the relationship between African Americans and the law in the antebellum South—including the notion that black people were wholly denied access to a “legal personality,” or, alternatively, that their cases must have been orchestrated by white abolitionists.

Recently, much rich scholarship has been produced that examines freedom suits brought in southern courts. But black men and women brought other kinds of petitions as well. This paper pushes those rich insights further by using a few unique cases extracted from local court records to explore the various ways in which southern blacks navigated the legal boundary between slavery and freedom. It argues that their negotiations of the laws of slavery were strategic and often targeted toward the achievement of a very specific end—which was not always legal freedom. Through their active engagement with local courts and their interactions with legal professionals, black people contributed to both the making of antebellum legal knowledge and the meaning of freedom in the nineteenth century US.