African American Divorce in Virginia and Washington, D.C., 1865-1930

Journal of Family History, Vol. 33, No. 1, January 2008, pp. 21-35

16 Pages Posted: 20 Jun 2013  

Dylan C. Penningroth

Northwestern University; American Bar Association

Date Written: January 2008

Abstract

This article explores the dynamics of divorce among African Americans from 1865 through the early years of the Great Migration. It builds on recent socio-legal scholarship that sees law as local, experiential, and improvised; drawing on local court records from Virginia and Washington, D.C. By focusing on divorce, a legal proceeding in which the litigants were nearly always of the same race, the article recovers under-examined dimensions of African American life, and suggests ways of moving beyond familiar dyads of race relations. Far from avoiding southern lower courts, African Americans pressed hundreds of suits; and participated vigorously in the legal process as litigants, clients, and witnesses. The legal process also involved translating popular notions, including those of gender and race, into legal categories. Black women who ended their marriages had to navigate a treacherous “politics of respectability." Finally, African American divorce was linked in complex ways to the Great Migration.

Keywords: law, marriage and divorce, African Americans, migration, race

Suggested Citation

Penningroth, Dylan C., African American Divorce in Virginia and Washington, D.C., 1865-1930 (January 2008). Journal of Family History, Vol. 33, No. 1, January 2008, pp. 21-35. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2282210

Dylan C. Penningroth (Contact Author)

Northwestern University ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

American Bar Association ( email )

321 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60610
United States

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