The courts were an essential place in the life of a slave. It was the first official place they entered when they arrived in the states and the place they went back if they wanted their freedom or had been granted their freedom. They could also visit the site if they wanted to contest the freedom of their loved ones. Many African Americans challenged for their freedom in court, and some of them won, while most did not. This can be attributed to the fact that slavery was legal during the 18th century and most judges were biased in favor of slavery. African-American slaves made good use of the courts because it was the only way they were sure to get free from bondage, find their long lost loved ones because of the records kept, change their identity after they attained freedom and for official use such as marriage.
Slaves used the courts to grant them their freedom from their slave masters. In the south, where the book Knights of the Razor is based, slave masters expected unwitting obedience from their slaves. As a result, many of them fled along British lines during the war, Caesar remained behind, and this made his mistress to free him, as a reward for being faithful. Still, he couldn't be a free man without the courts granting him his full freedom. Therefore, he went to court. Finally, he was given his freedom. This is just one example of how African-Americans used the courts to free themselves entirely from their owners and be granted the title of a free man. Additionally, they used the same courts to release their family members who were still slaves by buying them from their owners. He needed the courts to help identify them as free members of the society because they could again be kidnapped or forced back into slavery. On the same note, slaves from the north used to sue for their freedom, predominantly because in some areas, they outnumbered the whites. Moreover, they had the numbers. In 1724, the French Code Noir was introduced to the Mississippi valley. It was against manumission, but this did not deter slaves from going to court to demand their freedom.
Secondly, they relied on the courts to give them an identity, for example, if they wanted to change their slave name or the name they were given when they arrived in the states. He was named Caesar when he came in the US by a judge when he was ten years old, and thirty-six years later, he went before a judge again to change his name. This time, he chose a name for himself, John Hope. African-Americans could go to court after they bought or were granted their freedom to change their names from the slave names to a name they thought suited them most. Reason being, the names they were given were not fit for humans, and they reminded them of the hard life they had faced while in slavery.
Another issue the slaves used the courts for was marriage. It was rare for a groom to be underage during this period, but it was a regular thing for the bride to be a minor. When someone wanted to marry, they had to pay a bond to the home county of the bride, and this was done in court. The warrant was to pay for the marriage certificate to prove that the marriage was legal. For a slave to marry, they needed the consent of their master to marry, and on occasion, this was done, it was done in front of a judge. After women got married, they could not write a will, but anyone above 21 years could dispose of their land via a will. The will was formulated by the said person and presented IN court to prove the land belonged to the will owner. If a person died and the will was misplaced or hidden, the courts could order the person they thought knew where the will was to produce it. If there were no will, the court would order the land to be given to the next of kin, like the wife, children or other living relatives.
In the north, some slaves were able to buy their freedom and eventually start their own families and farms. Such people owned slaves too, and they used the courts to contest their slaves. For instance, if a slave 'belonging' to an African American were found in a white man's compound, the African American would go to court, and the matter would be settled.
Lastly, African Americans could use the courts to find their missing relatives. Reason being the courts had records of all slaves who had arrived in the states, and the names they were given. Therefore, it was an excellent place to start when looking for lost ones once a slave got his freedom. Additionally, everyone was required by the law to pay taxes. Therefore, this was another way these people used to find their relatives since there were records on who was eligible to pay taxes. Moreover, if one was looking for any male under 16, the place one could view was the tithing lists since 1782 because the state began taxing every man above 16. They also listed all the males in a household who were under 16; so that they could start paying taxes once they were sixteen. All these records could be found in courthouses or clerk offices.
In conclusion, slaves had different uses for the courts, but the most dominant one is demanding for their freedom. All through the north and south, African American slaves went to court to demand their freedom. The first slave to openly contest for freedom was Dred Scott who was sadly granted his liberty only nine months before he met his death. On occasion a slave worked off his debt and was able to buy his freedom, he had to go to court to be granted his freedom fully. They also used the courts to get a new identity in case they wanted to do away with their old slave name. If someone was finally free, they had the option of choosing a new name, and they had to finalize the process in court. Some slaves owned their slaves after they got free and they used the courts to contest if these slaves were stolen or captured by whites. Although rare, marriages were also formalized in court, due to the bond payment. If a relative wanted to find lost ones, they could use court records to do so since the courts kept all records of slaves who entered the states, and any boy born to a slave family.
Berlin, Ira. 2000. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
BIBLIOGRAPHY \l 1033 Bristol, Douglas W. Jr. Knights of the Razor; Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
Williams, Heather Andrea. Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
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