tv Lectures in History Slaves Suing for Their Freedom CSPAN May 13, 2020 11:22pm-12:39am EDT
university of nebraska lincoln professor william thomas, teaches a class on some of the lawsuits brought by slaves who sued for their freedom during the antibell lum period. he outlines the different legal arguments they used and emphasized how most suits affected not just one person but entire families. >> okay, good morning, everybody. let's get started. so today, our subject is freedom suits. suits brought by enslaved families, and how they posed a challenge to the constitution, and under the constitution, how they posed a challenge to american slavery. now, most of us are familiar with dread scott, d. john sandford and you all read chief justice roger tawny's opinion in dred scott's case. and you have read that opinion, and it's notorious in american history, right? for the blatant racism in it, for the sanction that tawny gives to the concept of human
property under the constitution, and for denying black citizenship, not only denying black citizenship, but denying even blacks as free, as persons under the constitution. and so, dred scott was one type of freedom suit, right? it was based on his physical presence in a free state, illinois, and his physical presence in wisconsin, a free territory.
and it's often presented in american history textbooks as if it were the only freedom suit in american history. to go to the supreme court. the only, almost uniformly, presentedup are, presented as dred scott, one man bringing a freedom suit. but when we look into it a little more closely, there were thousands of freedom suits in american courts. all of them challenging the notion of slavery under the constitution. what we're looking at here is a long line of anti-slavery constitutionalism. that's our subject for today. what was this, what were these freedom suits about? what did they do? and how did they challenge the concept of slavery under the constitution? it's important to recognize that these suits were beginning from day one of the united states in 1787, 1788, in fact, even before, in the colonial period as well, and certainly, in the 1780s, during the articles of confederation, these suits were coming forward, in various states, maryland, and virginia, in particular. now, dred scott's argument, right, was that he had been on free soil and therefore was free. and it's important also to recognize that had been, that argument had been reprised in previous freedom suits, in various state court, including missouri.
in the 1820s, where, in particular, one case, winnie v. whiteside, laid down the concept of once free, always free. once having gone to a free territory, an enslaved person having been returned to a slave state, like missouri, was in missouri's law, forever free. many of these freedom suits took on some of the most high profile people of the day. and you can see here, charlotte depew's lawsuit in 1830, against henry clay. henry clay, the secretary of state at the time, outgoing secretary of state, he had been speaker of the house, he was
one of the most well-known politicians in american history, he was a perennial candidate possibility for the presidency, depew sued henry clay. hundreds of lawsuits in washington, d.c. there were hundreds in st. louis, missouri. there were lawsuits in new orleans. there were lawsuits in baltimore. there were lawsuits in various parts of maryland and virginia. so there were thousands of these lawsuits. and some of the same concepts that we see in dred scott, we're going to talk about in just a minute, come up in some of the earlier cases. notably, one case you all have looked into, mine am week,, mcqueen, her lawsuit against john helpburn, what were some of the essential elements of that queen. have hepburn case in 1813. anybody? >> her grandmother or great grandmother was free, she was then free, that they overruled most of the
testimonies that she presented as hearsay. >> right. okay. good. excellent. so this queen case was based on the claim that she made that her ancestor ha been taken to england and resided there on free oil before three years before coming to the maryland colony. and instead of being sold as an in dentured servant, for seven years, she was effectively enslaved upon her arrival in the maryland colony. and she had been from this, this ancestor had been from nice, spain, ecuador, present day ecuador today, she was perhaps ecuador, perhaps indigenous native american, from that area, of south america, and had been taken to london, resided there, but, and so despite that, chief justice john marshall, in the 1813 decision, he affirmed this
hearsay rule. and it is designed to keep out oral testimony, right, about the ancestors of enslaved people. and so her free status, all of the evidence for her free status, her ancestor's free status, came from depositions in which people said my mother said, or i heard about this, or it was secondhand testimony. and marshall's decision had rendered that testimony inadmissible. and in all future cases as well. and marshall's decision was designed to protect property rights. right? in fact, marshall invokes the idea of property and defending property rights, in that 1813 decision. now, in queen v.hehburn, also, there is a an important dissent that we need to hold in our
mind and remember. and one of the associate justice, gabriel duval, he writes a dissent in that case, in which he strongly um plies that enslaved people are not property under the law. and in particular, in cases where a person's freedom was on the line, the court should allow any and all evidence, even if it is hearsay, it should allow it in, because when a person's freedom is on the line, the court should lean in favor of freedom. in favor of liberty. now, duval, as it happened, had pioneered many of the freedom suits in maryland. and duval new about all of the maryland cases in which hearsay had been admitted, right? maryland, under its law, had allowed hearsay testimony.
but when the supreme court in queen v.hepburn, ruled in 1813 that hearsay was inadmissible, that in a way, doesn't it, shuts down a certain line of freedom suit, claiming freedom on the basis of an ancestor became so much more difficult to prove if you couldn't use the kinds of depositions that, or the kinds of testimony, oral testimony, family lore, in lieu of written documents, right? and so mia mcqueen did not win her suit in 1813, but as we're going to see, hundreds of other enslaved families and enslaved people did win their freedom suits. dred scott did not win his. but hundreds of others did.
and so if we, if we compare, just for a minute, this, what are the similarities between queen v.hepburn, and dred scott v john sanford? what are some of the similarities? well, the first, you all had mentioned it is, that dred scott's claim in a way was similar, like queen's right? he said he was free because he had set foot on free soil where savely savely slavery illegal in illinois, and setting foot in illinois, that was and he was immediately free because he was taken to wisconsin territory where slavery was barred under the missouri compromise above the 36/30 line. but i want to draw your attention specific specifically to another similarity between
dred scott's case and queen v hepburn, and in my view this is the most important similarity between them and really it characterizes all of the freedom suits that we're going to talk about, and in particular, the case that we're going to look at today, and that is this. both were family-based freedom suits. okay? i said that we often think of dred scott's case as one man, dred scott, but harriet scott, dred scott's spouse, filed her freedom suit at exactly the same time. she had been taken to fort snelling in wisconsin territory, and she had been sold or transferred to dr. emerson, who enslaved dred scott, think about that for a second, she was sold effectively in a free territory, so if slavery is not legal, under american law in the
territory of wisconsin, how is it that harriet scott could be sold there? not just taken there, but sold. right? their daughter eliza was born on a steamer, up the mississippi river, above the 36/30 line. okay? their other daughter lizzy was born in missouri, upon their return. so dred scott v john sanford is not just about dred scott. it's about harriet and dred and eliza and lizzy, it's about a family who in various ways have different claims to freedom, right? i mean eliza is born in a free territory, and lizzy is born upon return to parents who have
been effectively under law presumably possibly freed in their residence in a free territory. so first and foremost, i just want it make this clear, this is, the dred scott case is a family freedom suit. and like queen v hepburn, and many of the others that came forward in washington, d.c. the other introductory point here is this. all of these freedom suits aim toward limiting slavery's reach, right? you think about all of the freedom suits are about defining slavery as circumscribed by something. it can exist in a certain state, but not others. it can exist only by law, in this way. if there are wills or contracts, as we're going to see in a minute, then slavery is void in
those cases. in other words, almost every freedom suit, if we step back and look from 30,000 feet, at what's happening, all of these freedom suits are defining slavery as something local. freedom is national, the norm, slavery is local. freedom is national, slavery is circumscribed. it's defined. it's tightly defined. it can only go so far as the law in its particular places. and so these freedom suits again, today's point is, are the longest line of anti-slavery constitutionalism, that is the idea that the constitution did not confer legitimacy on slavery, so about these suits, generally. just broadly. and then we're going to look at one in particular here. it's important to recognize
everything was on the line here. black plaintiffs directed these suits. black plaintiffs planned these suits. these were determined legal actions. african-americans had accumulated years of legal knowledge, legal know-how, experience, sophisticated strategies of negotiation, and working through the law, they passed these ideas down from generation to generation, this is another theme we're going to see today, lots of these cases are multi-generational. grand parent, next generation, next generation. the second is something we've talked about in this class before, and that is that the
freedom suits were civil actions, right? what does that mean, their civil actions, what's the, can the defendant slave holder testify? no, right? they can't. so in a civil action, in a civil suit, the defendant can't testify, the plaintiff, the enslaved plaintiff can't testify, but the point here is, that the defendant, slave holders, have to rely on other witnesses, they cannot use their own authority, their own sort of reputation to try to place themselves right before the court. in effect, the freedom suits put the slave holders on the defensive, right? they fundamentally, slave holders, had to defend slave holding. individually. in these suits. and the third broad point is this. a lot of the freedom suits, in particular the ones we're going to look at today, were an
effort to stop, to interrupt the potential breakup of a family. the separation of families is at the heart of many of these freedom suits. because by filing a suit, the mechanism of the court would at least for the moment delay the impending sale and breakup of a family. in fact, here's an example, just this is, you all know that my team here at university of nebraska is producing a documentary film about one of the freedom suits, in fact, the case we're going to look at today, and here's a, just a story board that we've come up with, that is about this. it gives us a sense of this.
>> let me through. wait, wait. let me through. you're holding my very -- free, free, see, here. signed. right here. >> stand down. the train is leaving. stand down. >> freedom papers. signed. my wife, mary. see? mary, she's free. daniel, daniel! >> okay, at the heart of this story, a central fact. that slave holders throughout the entire period here, from
1800 to 1860, were separating families and selling people, or attempting to sell them into the interstate slave trade, with deception, and with speed. this is what we might call sudden sales. slave holders used this tactic, a sudden sale, to the slave, not tell them what's happening, sell them quickly, transport them to washington, d.c., out of maryland, and then on the ships, or marched, or on the train, to the deep south, to louisiana, to the sugar fields, or to the cotton fields of mississippi. these sudden sales were quite obviously meant to in some cases avert possible freedom,
to avert what the law might dictate in a particular family that might have a legitimate claim to freedom. to place people suddenly out of the reach of the courts, rip them away from their family networks, remove them from the possibility of being able to contact an attorney, much less gather witnesses for their case. how could one gather witness for a freedom suit having been sent to louisiana if they were from maryland? so today, we're going to concentrate on the story, on the case, of james ash versus william h. williams. this a freedom suit prior to dred scott where chief justice roger tawney wrote the majority opinion.
i think it's important because this is a case where tawney creates a sort of legal fiction that he will later deploy in dred scott. i think you'll see what i mean by the end here. only when we look at cases like james ash v. william h. williams and the long history of the freedom suits can we see that the challenge they pose to slavery under the constitution was such that roger tawney was willing to go to great lengths to avoid, as he does in dred scott, recognizing black americans as rights bearing people under the constitution. that is what the dred scott case ultimately does.
this is the deep lie at the heart of the dred scott decision and one that we'll expose today. so, first, james ash. he's part of a large family from prince georges county, maryland. he was enslaved and many of the people in his family were enslaved of course. he's a -- he's a brother-in-law of daniel bell and a brother-in-law of ann bell. both of whom are the children of lucy bell. the matriarch. she was living as a free woman in washington, d.c. and was living as a free woman in the 1820s. lucy bell lives to the age of 99. okay.
she dies in the summer of 1862. just after washington, d.c. ' emancipation is affected. she dies seeing her children and grandchildren free. the struggle goes back to the 1830s. think about this. a 30-year, three generation -- more than 30-year, three generation struggle for freedom. using the courts where possible, negotiating, navigating, accumulating legal knowledge, passing it on.
in 1862 her children ann bell, daniel bell and caroline bell bought a head stone for her and she's buried at congressional cemetery with a head stone dedicated to their mother. william h. williams was one of the most notorious slave traders in the washington, d.c. he owned the yellow house. it was a slave jail and in the day was sometimes called a slave pen. we've already looked at one case, ann williams'case, the film we checked out the other day. that one was similar in that george miller's tavern was a slave pen. william h. williams is by the 1830s the single largest slave jail in
the city of washington and it's called the yellow house. james ash was taken there and held there. we'll see why in just a second. this was in 1839. a few months later a man named solomon northrop was taken to the yellow house. you may know solomon northrop from "12 years a slave." the movie came out a couple years ago, academy award winning film. solomon northrop who was kidnapped and taken to be sold to louisiana and to the southwest, was taken to the yellow house after he was kidnapped. he wrote about it this way -- this is how northrop described the yellow house. the room was about 12 feet
square. the walls of solid masonry. the floor was heavy planked. there was one small window crossed with outside iron bars. the furniture of the room consisted of the wooden bench on which i sat, an old fashioned dirty box stove. besides these there was neither bed, nor blanket, nor anything whatever. the yard extended rearward from the house about 30 feet. in one part of the wall there was a strongly ironed door opening into a narrow covered passage leading along one side of the house into the street. the doom of the colored man upon whom the door leading out
of that passage closed was sealed. the top of the wall supported one end of a roof which ascended inwards forming a kind of open shed. underneath the roof the outside presented only the appearance of a quiet residence. a stranger looking at it would never have dreamed of its uses. strange as it may seem within plain sight of this same house looking down from its commanding house upon it was the capital. the voices of representatives boasting of freedom and equality and the rattling of the poor slaves'chains almost co-mingle. a slave pen within the very shadow of the capitol. we can see that right here.
we've got capitol square. here's the yellow house. we're going to talk about the bell's where ash is. daniel bell works at the naval yard over here. we'll talk about that. a white slave holder family that the bells end up suing are here at armstead's residence. where do we start with this story? ash was seized in prince georges county in 1839 in what i would call a sudden sale. he was taken quickly and sent to the yellow house. williams planned to transport him and send him to louisiana. when we pull back and look at the broad scope of this
interstate slave trade, we're talking about between 1820 and 1860 1.5 million people sold out of maryland and virginia and delaware and sent into the south, cotton south and sugar fields. 1.5 million people. 186,000 children. at least 260,000 spouses separated. okay. one scholar has estimated that every 3.6 minutes between 1820 and 1860 a family was broken up and a person was sold. a person was sold every 3.6 minutes for 40 years. the scope and the scale of the interstate slave trade is something we have to recon with and think about as americans and understand this forced
migration. every 3.6 minutes for 40 years. ash was one who was taken, sold, sent to the yellow house and it's there that he has somehow the resources, probably because he was a member of the bell family and they are not far away. in 1839 he has the resources to bring a freedom suit which he does in december of 1839. so to understand what happens, how ash like northrop ends up in the yellow house, what set his freedom suit in motion, to understand the story of ash v. williams he's taking on the largest most notorious slave trader in the city. to understand, we've got to step back. it's complicated because it involves everyone in the bell family. james ash claimed his freedom
on the basis of the provisions in an 1824 will, the will of maria greenfield. she had no children of her own. she bequest all her property, including her people, including james ash, including ann bell, she left them all to gerard greenfield, her nephew. he's in tennessee in 1824. he has dozens of enslaved
people working in cotton fields. he's a large planter/slave holder. she bequeaths with the following pro proviso. i'll quote this here. he shall not carry -- he, gerard, her at thenephew -- he shall not carry them out of maryland or sell them to anyone. in those events, i set them free for life. this will is unarguably clear. it's the last statement in the will. this is important for the court case. it's the last thing in the
will. it's the final summation and she places this. he shall not carry them out of the state of maryland, i.e., to tennessee, and he shall not sell them to anyone, whether in maryland or elsewhere. okay. you're probably thinking, wait a minute, the will can't be the whole story here of the timing of this lawsuit. the will was in 1824. ash is sold in 1839. what happened? what happened in the intervening period? why is ash suddenly sold against the provisions of this -- obvious provisions of this will? first of all, we need to recognize for years gerard t. greenfield, the nephew, did nothing. he did not to violate the will.
she effectively lived as a free woman in a free manner. james ash was unable to do that. he was it appears continuously enslaved on a plantation in prince georges county, but probably hired out by gerard greenfield in tennessee. he's hired out james ash to work. he's taking all of the proceeds of course. well, that's the situation until in the summer of 1835, 11 years after this will, there is a riot and a strike at the navy yard. there's chaos in the city of washington and in that moment daniel bell, ann's brother. james ash's brother-in-law, daniel bell decides to begin a delicate negotiation for the freedom of his wife mary and her six children.
now bell was an enslaved black smith at the washington navy yard. he worked here. there were about 13 enslaved african americans at the navy yard. there were some free blacks working at the navy yard. one of his associates at the navy yard, a free black man named joeseph thompson, won his freedom in court on provisions of a will. he filed a freedom suit. daniel bell worked side by side with joseph thompson. we can be sure they talked about these matters, right? in the navy yard one of the foreman at the yard was a man
named robert armstead. robert was the slave holder who held mary and the six children. okay? a white man, a foreman in the yard, not particularly wealthy. his principle wealth really was mary and the six children, mary bell. so daniel clearly knew that robert armstead in the summer of 1835, he knew that robert signed a memorial for the abolition of slavery in washington, d.c. this was circulated in 1828, 1,000 or more white men signed it. 90 white men at the navy yard who worked there signed this petition, this memorial which was sent to congress saying