In 1857, the chief justice of the United States, Roger Brooke Taney, declared in his infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford opinion that since the nation’s founding, African Americans — whether free or enslaved — had “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Taney’s opinion was not only inflammatory but based on bad history. It ignored the rights that some Black people had exercised in some states as far back as the Revolution, including the right to vote. More damning, Taney’s words denied what he knew from his own legal practice: Black Americans used the legal system to fight for freedom. And sometimes, they won.
In his gripping new book, “A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery From the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War,” historian William G. Thomas III provides a profound and prodigiously researched rebuttal to Taney’s lie and to the conventional story that Black people fought for their freedom before the Civil War primarily by risking nighttime escapes or perilous rendezvous with the Underground Railroad. Thomas, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska, describes the legal efforts of a number of African American families who lived in Maryland and D.C. from the colonial period through the Civil War. Thomas shows how families bolstered their claims of freedom through documents, oral histories and accounts of their free ancestors’ arrival in America.
Thomas paints rich multigenerational portraits of families who used their histories in the legal process and won freedom in suit after suit. “Slaves sued slaveholders in every court available to them and in every jurisdiction they could reach from the very beginning of the United States,” he writes.
The key to most of the cases was ancestry — specifically, on the mother’s side. In general, the status of a mother dictated her children’s status as free or enslaved. The female line of descent was therefore crucial to proving that one was a free person. If a petitioner in a freedom suit could demonstrate that she was descended from a free woman, she would be deemed free.
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