Law and Slavery: Reopening a Nineteenth-Century Cold Case

The nineteenth-century legal record contains thousands of "cold cases" that illuminate the fraught relationship of law and slavery. Many recognized crimes remained un-punished, including the kidnapping of free persons for sale into slavery, and slave traders' illegal landings of African captives on U.S. shores. At the same time, enslavement itself rested on acts of force clothed in the robes of law, allowing peremptory processes such as the seizure of Black families as alleged fugitives from slavery. In this seven-session, one-credit-hour seminar we will experiment with the methods of legal history as we read carefully in the surviving records of selected cases, and analyze their dynamics.

The seminar sessions will be organized around shared discussion, beginning with analysis of the 1853 freedom suit styled Eulalie vs. Long & Mabry, and building toward the development of an individual project for each student. Students have two options for the final assignment: The first is to select, transcribe, edit and prepare headnotes for excerpts drawn from surviving records related to one or another such "cold case," developing your own theory of the case along the way. The second is to review a case file and craft a hypothetical legal intervention, such as the indictment of a known kidnapper who was never prosecuted, a petition for habeas corpus for a specific child sold into slavery, or instructions to the jury for a criminal case that reached trial.