A Bind of Their Own Making
Black plaintiffs in civil suits remain a little known aspect of the legal history of the slave South. African Americans were not only observers of trials, informal participants, defendants, or objects of regulation: trial court records reveal them to be prolific litigators as well. They were parties to civil suits in their own interests and directly active in legal proceedings. They sued other black people, certainly, but they also sued white people. What is more, 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 we understand the operation of power, of law, and of racial hierarchies in the slave South. The black legal experience in America cannot be reduced to white regulation and black criminality. Examining African Americans’ involvement in private law reveals a different picture. Black people appealed to the courts to protect their interests. They exploited the language of rights and property, thus including themselves within an American narrative of citizenship and privilege in advance of formal emancipation. When black litigants made such claims at law, they expected the courts to validate and execute those claims. Indeed, they sought accountability. Thus, seemingly mundane civil actions like debt recovery suits complicate our notions about the sources of rights and their relationship to civic inclusion.
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