Suing for Freedom: Interracial Sex, Slave Law, and Racial Identity in the Post-Revolutionary and Antebellum South
86 Pages Posted: 3 Apr 2011 Last revised: 8 May 2012
Date Written: January 1, 2004
This Article looks at freedom suits and, in particular, the different ways the Southern socio-legal regime responded to slaves of mixed-race descent asserting their right to freedom in the courts. Through an exhaustive examination of these cases, the Article details how the courts were initially receptive to these suits but gradually pulled back as sectional tensions mounted. The Article maintains that the courts’ changing response was very much tied to the shifting notions of race and what it meant. During the post-Revolutionary period, particularly in the Upper South, blackness did not necessarily mean slavery, and mixed-race slaves successfully asserted they were entitled to their freedom because they descended from a free person. By the 1850s, such claims became untenable, and the focus of the trials turned away from proving ancestry to differentiating whites from blacks. Viewed this way, even a hint of blackness meant the person was not white and must be a slave, and helps explain the precipitous drop in the successful prosecution of freedom.
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