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Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South$
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Kimberly M. Welch

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781469636436

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469636436.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.northcarolina.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University of North Carolina Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in NCSO for personal use.date: 23 September 2021

Subjects of Selfhood

Subjects of Selfhood

(p.161) 6 Subjects of Selfhood
Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South

Kimberly M. Welch

University of North Carolina Press

This chapter examines 128 cases of enslaved people suing for their freedom (lawsuits that recognized or altered the personal status of an individual held in a state of slavery). Enslaved people in the Natchez district exploited narrow escape hatches within the legal system in order to orchestrate a change in personal status and claim freedom for themselves and their families—often successfully—despite legal restrictions to manumission that increased over time. If they could prove that defendants illegally held them as slaves, they won their lawsuits more often than not. Enslaved litigants sued for their freedom on a number of grounds, from the enforcement of promises of freedom made in their late masters' wills to accusations of kidnapping to safeguarding self-purchase contracts. They employed their knowledge of the law and legal processes and harnessed their considerable community networks—both local and distant—in order to gain their liberty. Enslaved litigants used every available opening in the law when pressing for freedom and transformed abstract privileges and obligations into social and legal realities. By claiming their rights to themselves and their labor, moreover, enslaved people induced the Mississippi and Louisiana courts to act against the economic interests of a slaveholders' republic.

Keywords:   Freedom Suit, Wills, Kidnapping, Contract, Slavery

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