A history of slaves who sought legal redress to obtain emancipation.
For historian and Guggenheim fellow Thomas, investigating suits brought by slaves against slaveholders from America’s founding through the end of the Civil War had more than academic interest: His own ancestors, he was shocked to discover, included slave owners in Maryland and a lawyer who staunchly defended slave owners’ interests. Interwoven with his compelling historical narrative, the author recounts conferences, meetings, and his attendance at the Summer Institute for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, where he met descendants of slaves, pastors, community organizers, and others to examine the reality and consequences of racism. Drawing on long-buried archival material—depositions, lawyers’ notes, fragmentary case files—Thomas fulfills his goal of chronicling the lawsuits and vividly bringing to light the lives and experiences of the individuals involved, particularly the Queen family, which sought freedom from bondage, and his own, the slaveholding Ducketts. The freedom suits, writes the author “were, in effect, a public counterpart of the Underground Railroad,” enacted across the country, in every court available—even up to the Supreme Court, which heard an appeal in 1813. Many of the suits were against the Jesuits, who, by 1767, “owned more slaves than any other person or organization in the Western Hemisphere.” They predominated in the American Colonies, where Jesuit priests were major tobacco planters. In Maryland, enslaved families won hundreds of freedom suits; some who were emancipated were able to liberate other family members, and some were able to acquire property. But winning a suit did not necessarily mean liberation for all; for some, “freedom did not sever ties as much as strain, twist, and bend them into new configurations.” Thomas reveals the deep-seated contradictions inherent in the slaveholding culture. Francis Scott Key, for example, a lawyer who represented more than 100 enslaved families, “also bought slaves and married into one of the largest slaveholding families in Maryland.”
A fresh, disquieting look into America’s traumatic past.
Pub Date: today
Page Count: 432
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020