Making Indians 'White': The Judicial Abolition of Native Slavery in Revolutionary Virginia and its Racial Legacy

75 Pages Posted: 6 May 2011 Last revised: 28 Jun 2011

Gregory Ablavsky

Stanford Law School

Date Written: May 3, 2011

Abstract

This article traces the history of a series of freedom suits brought by Virginia slaves between 1772 and 1806, in which the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia judicially abolished nearly two centuries of American Indian slavery in the colony by ruling that slaves who could prove maternal descent from Native Americans were prima facie free. Delving first into the legal history of Indian slavery in colonial America, it then examines the doctrinal shift that led the courts to redefine natives as unfit subjects for enslavement, and argues that its roots lie in a racialization of slavery that separated Africans from Natives. The final section explores the national legacy of these rulings, tracing the spread of these legal principles throughout the antebellum United States and discussing how the racial ideology that divided Native Americans and African Americans continues to pose legal hurdles in contemporary Indian law cases involving tribal recognition and the Cherokee freedmen.

Suggested Citation

Ablavsky, Gregory, Making Indians 'White': The Judicial Abolition of Native Slavery in Revolutionary Virginia and its Racial Legacy (May 3, 2011). University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 159, p. 1457, 2011. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1830592

Gregory Ablavsky (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

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