Thursday, October 11, 2018

Loren Schweninger's "Appealing for Liberty"

Loren Schweninger is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where he taught for forty years. He was Director of the Race and Slavery Petitions Project from 1991-2009, creating the Digital Library on American Slavery during his tenure, and is the author of numerous books, including the Lincoln-Prize winning Runaway Slaves: Rebels in the Plantations (2010), co-authored with John Hope Franklin.

Schweninger applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Appealing for Liberty: Freedom Suits in the South, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Nancy’s term of service would have expired the same year Smith received his “instrument of freedom,” but, like him, she remained in bondage another twenty years, until the mid- 1830s.

In perhaps the strangest case of inordinate term servitude, a Virginia woman named Nan claimed that, according to a deed, she was bound to serve a term of twelve years, whereas her children’s terms would end on their reaching age twenty- eight. In 1817, Nan was released and registered in Rockingham County as a free person of color, but long after Nan’s death, her daughter Gracey and Gracey’s nine children remained enslaved. Not until 1859 were they freed, when the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals declared that there was nothing in the case to show that Nan was a slave, “except the fact of her color and African descent”— a presumption “repelled by the other facts proved in the case.” More than four decades after Nan had gained her freedom, her children and grandchildren won theirs.

Many of the slaves kept in bondage long after their terms had expired had in fact been sold as slaves for life. Often they were conveyed to states where the laws prohibited or inhibited the ability of African Americans to file freedom suits. In Louisiana, for example, slaves could not be freed prior to reaching age thirty unless special permissions were granted. When term slaves were permitted and able to bring suits in their home communities, the courts sometimes failed to provide assistance or relief, especially when time-limited servants had not yet served out their terms. Even under the most frightful circumstances, when blacks feared being taken out of county or state and enslaved for life, courts might decline to issue injunctions of protection. In such cases, the slaveholders retained ownership rights over their human property and the courts could offer that property no alternatives.

Among the most vexing questions in the law of emancipation was whether children born to female slaves who had been promised their freedom in the future were entitled to the same benefit. The question arose almost entirely in the Upper South, where manumission continued during the nineteenth century. The laws covering emancipation differed from state to state, as did the precedents established by the courts. In 1799, in Pleasants v. Pleasants, the Virginia Chancellor George Wythe and Appeals Judge Spencer Roane offered the opinion that as soon as the right of the mother to future freedom had been determined, she was free, as were any children born to her, and testators had no power to “impose any servitude on them.” In short, they ruled that “the present right to future freedom is present freedom.”

This view was repudiated in Virginia in 1824 in the case of Maria v. Surbaugh, wherein Virginia Judge Spencer Green decided that the children born to female term slaves during the mother’s term of servitude were born in, and remained in, bondage. The case was complicated, stretching back to 1790 when, in his
Page 99 in Appealing for Liberty: Freedom Suits in the South is a good reflection of the volume which examines how illegally held slaves in the southern states sued in various courts for their freedom. Among them were black people who were supposed to be freed after a term of years as indicated in deeds of manumission and last will and testaments and what happened to their children if born during the term before their release, at least in Virginia law. (For other topics covered in the book, see the table of contents.)
Learn more about Appealing for Liberty at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue