Freedom Courts: Black Women and Divorce Politics in Mississippi, 1890–1940

Saturday, January 8, 2022
Grand Ballroom Foyer (New Orleans Marriott)
Evan Howard Ashford, State University of New York, College at Oneonta
Following emancipation, Black women strove to determine their life’s trajectory. They utilized available spaces to position themselves in empowered positions by denying oppressive forces from controlling their freedom. Freedom Courts: Black Women and Divorce Politics in Mississippi, 1890-1940, examines how Black women used divorce to secure personal freedom from troubled marriages within a broader political struggle to curtail their access to the legal procedure. While the practice existed in Mississippi prior to 1890, classifying divorce as a “Negro Problem” began to dominate newspapers during the century’s last decade. Divorce, as a legal maneuver, provided Black women the space to challenge oppression within the household in situations, where they fought domestic battles with their husbands for dignity and equality. These internal battles played against broader calls for uniform divorce laws to curtail divorce access, in addition to broader sociopolitical issues such as restricted abortion access and civil rights. Utilizing divorce petitions, letters, oral histories, and photographs, the poster provides a firsthand account of the dual battle Black women fought to free themselves from domestic and proposed restrictive legislation.Divorce never materialized as a visible movement and despite its political gravitas, the topic lacks serious historical inquiry. Freedom Courts provides a rarely discussed and researched aspect of the African American experience.
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