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From Slave to Litigant: African Americans in Court in the Post-Civil War South

In the following article Melissa Milewski, a graduate student in history at New York University, describes her research which has uncovered the surprising success of African American litigants in court cases in the post-Civil War South.

As slaves, black southerners were treated only as property to be bought or sold in civil cases.  Then, during the Civil War and Reconstruction, in a revolution that shook the nation, slaves were emancipated and black men granted the vote.  Yet another important transformation has been overlooked: black southerners’ increased access to state courts after the Civil War.  During Reconstruction, former slaves brought civil cases against their former masters in southern courts and frequently won these cases.  Although in many ways the revolutionary changes wrought by Reconstruction were short-lived, long after political Reconstruction had ended and white northerners turned a blind eye to the increasingly racist regimes of the U.S. South, black southerners continued their struggles in state courts.  Even as they lost a number of high profile suits dealing with racial discrimination, they frequently won seemingly prosaic civil suits over transactions, wills, and property.  Indeed, I found that black litigants won the majority of civil cases litigated against white southerners in higher state courts – not only during Reconstruction, but, astonishingly, during the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras as well.  Through such cases, African Americans continued to exercise the legal rights gained during Reconstruction long after that revolutionary moment had ended.

Approximately half of the civil appellate suits I examined between 1865 and 1900 involved former slaves and the heirs of their former masters.  Such cases illuminate the interactions of black and white southerners who had known one another for years as their lives shifted around them.  At times, such cases continued suits litigated over master’s wills in the antebellum South.  In September 1853, for instance, three slaves,

I have a Dream - MLK