Black Litigants in the South

In the antebellum American South, among the sprawling plantations of the Natchez district, in a society in which slavery was deeply entrenched and violently defended, black people sued white people. They often won. This is a phenomenon that has largely been overlooked by historians. But it ought not to be, because it speaks to the heart of the ways in which we understand the operation of power, of law, and of racial hierarchies in the slave South.

Black Litigants is a historical study of free and enslaved African Americans’ use of the local courts in the antebellum American South. The project investigates unpublished and previously unexplored lower court records from the Natchez district of Mississippi and Louisiana between 1800 and 1860 in which free blacks and slaves sued whites and other African Americans. Although they present technical and interpretive challenges, local court records represent an important resource for understanding the relationship between legal systems and formally marginalized peoples in racially and economically stratified societies. In this case they undermine the longstanding assumption that African Americans were legal outsiders. Free blacks and slaves were not strangers to the courts. They resided at the center of antebellum southern legal culture—as the objects of white concerns about social control and racial hierarchy and as active protectors of their own interests. Their litigation indicates that the legal system was not solely the province of the elite. On significant occasions it could serve it as a tool of the subordinated, even in a slave society.

Black Litigants in the American South, 1820-1860

Professor Kimberly Welch

 

Professor Welch’s study of free and enslaved African Americans’ use of the local courts in the antebellum American South examines trial court records from the Natchez district of Mississippi and Louisiana between 1820 and 1860 in which free blacks and slaves sued whites and other African Americans.  The study investigates both common-law (Mississippi) and civil-law (Louisiana) regimes and will generate a dataset of all extant lower court cases involving black litigants in four counties in the Natchez district (about 2,000 cases).

Specifically, Black Litigants asks what the legal action of those denied formal legal and political rights reveals about the operation of power on the ground in a slave society.  Although they present technical and interpretive challenges, unpublished local court records stored in courthouse basements and storage sheds in the Natchez district (records that are rarely accessed and rapidly deteriorating) represent an important resource for understanding the relationship between legal systems and formally marginalized peoples in racially and economically stratified societies.  In this case they undermine the longstanding assumption that African Americans were legal outsiders.  Free blacks and slaves were not strangers to the courts.  They resided at the center of antebellum southern legal culture—as the objects of white concerns about social control and racial hierarchy and as active protectors of their own interests.  Their litigation indicates that the legal system was not solely the province of the elite.  On significant occasions it served as a tool of the subordinated, even in a slave society.  Reimagining African Americans as shrewd litigators does much to complicate our narratives of race and power in the American South and will serve as a model for understanding the legal action of other subordinated groups.  By hearing anew the voices of marginalized peoples and accounting for the political importance of access to courts, we will be better placed to understand the centrality of legal institutions in the long struggle for full citizenship.

 

 

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