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Southern Free Women of Color in the Antebellum North: Race, Class, and a 'New Women's Legal History'

Bernie D. Jones

Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts

February 15, 2011

Akron Law Review, Vol. 41, p. 763, 2008

This article explores the possibilities of a "new women's legal history" as indicated by the intersections of race, gender and class as experienced by Southern enslaved women newly freed in the antebellum North, such as Nancy Wells of Mississippi and Amy Willis of South Carolina. Women such as these had been the enslaved partners and biological daughters of white slaveholding men in the South. They were brought north to Ohio for the purpose of being manumitted and identified as family members eligible to receive inheritances in their home states. The article considers too, the significance of John Jolliffe, a Cincinnati abolitionist lawyer, in developing legal strategies and representing the men and women. These private law cases, involving manumission, inheritance rights and family matters, further contribute to an understanding of abolitionist law practice. Cases such as these also enabled the practice that gave him notoriety: his pro bono work representing clients like Margaret Garner, who fought repatriation to slavery under the fugitive slave acts.

The first section contextualizes the development of theoretical perspectives on race, gender and class in American legal history. The second explains the social and legal status of African-American women in the antebellum United States, enslaved and free. It demonstrates the significance of legal institutions in northern states like Ohio that affected the fortunes of newly freed women of color and influenced their abilities to gain inheritances in their homes states in the South. John Jolliffe is discussed in section three, and the article concludes in section four with a discussion of the relationship between the different types of cases Jolliffe handled: the manumission and inheritance cases discussed in the previous sections and the fugitive slave cases as demonstrated in the case of Margaret Garner.

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Date posted: February 6, 2008 ; Last revised: February 17, 2011

Suggested Citation

Jones, Bernie D., Southern Free Women of Color in the Antebellum North: Race, Class, and a 'New Women's Legal History' (February 15, 2011). Akron Law Review, Vol. 41, p. 763, 2008 . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1090993

Contact Information

Bernie D. Jones (Contact Author)
Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts ( email )
138 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02111
United States
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