According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln recently debuted an online database of more than 500 court cases in which enslaved persons had sued to gain their freedom. The Dred Scott case in 1857 is the most famous of such cases, but there were many more.
The project collected, digitized, and makes accessible the freedom suits brought by enslaved families in the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, Maryland state courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court. African-American enslaved families accumulated legal knowledge, legal acumen, and experience with the law that they passed from one generation to the next.
The freedom suits they brought against slaveholders exposed slavery a priori as subject to legal question. The suits in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, raised questions about the constitutional and legal legitimacy of slavery, and by extension, affected slavery and law in Maryland, Virginia, and all of the federal territories.
One such case was that of Ann Williams, who leapt from the third floor window of a tavern on F Street in Washington, D.C., after she was sold to Georgia slave traders and separated from her family. She suffered a broken back and fractured her arms, but she survived.
In 2015, original documents about her came to light at the National Archives. Williams and her husband were reunited and had four more children. Then she sued for her freedom. And won. Below is a short film about her story:
The online database concentrates on cases filed in Washington, D.C. in the 1820s and 1830s. More than 100 of these cases involved enslaved persons who were represented by Francis Scott Key, the author of the “Star Spangled Banner.” As such the database is named “O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law and Family.”
When you arrive at Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, you’re given an enslaved person’s image and story to wear for the day. Mine was Ann Hawthorne, who was 85 years old when the Library ofCongress’s Federal Writer’s Project recorded her personal story of growing up enslaved on the Whitney Plantation, one of many plantations along the Mississippi’s winding River Road. Each story is printed on a laminated card that you wear around your neck—a physical manifestation of the history of slavery; a reminder that real people lived here, died here.
Billed as America’s first-ever museum dedicated exclusively to American slavery, Whitney Plantation sits amid acres of sugar cane that, on the late afternoon of my visit, swayed in a wild wind from a passing tropical depression. The plantation’s swampy land lay heavy with ankle-deep water and hummed with voracious mosquitos. A long row of black and white umbrellas leaned against the visitors’ center and gift shop so that those who had paid $22 a head to tour the grounds were not made uncomfortable by the day’s fine, cool mist of rain.
As I waited for my tour guide, a black woman with long braids led a tour group past a white church, where statues of a young Ann Hawthorne and a dozen other enslaved children seemed to stare directly at—or, really, into—the visitors, who watched a video featuring their testimony.
The entire museum is similar: You walk the same pathways that victims of chattel slavery walked, you listen to their stories in their own words, you see and hear the pieces of history that aren’t printed in textbooks or told on other plantation tours. You won’t find much information on the wealthy slaveowners on this plantation. Instead, Whitney presents slavery through the stories of those who experienced it.
The museum’s creation is owed in part to Dr. Ibrahima Seck, a tall, dark man with a florid African accent, who built the museum along with Whitney’s owner, white New Orleans attorney John Cummings. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Antebellum South, and it’s clear that everyone working at Whitney regards him as a living exhibit.
“According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Database, 60 percent of the people in Louisiana came from Senegambia, my area of Africa,” Dr. Seck told me. “So there are very strong ties here from my home.”
Seck had agreed to give me a private tour, so we climbed into his golf cart and drove past a small, rusty jail. Through its cage bars, we could see the slave masters’ 220-year-old “Big House” in the distance.
“This jail wasn’t on this plantation,” said Dr. Seck, driving faster now so the mosquitos wouldn’t catch up. “It was found in Gonzales, Louisiana, buried in the mud. At the slave markets in New Orleans, this is where the slaves were locked up before being sold.”
There is no fiction here. There is nothing you can deny here. — Dr. Ibrahima Seck
Past seven small cypress wood cabins, which at one time slept dozens of slaves apiece, Seck stopped the cart at the marble Wall of Honor, which displays the names of over 350 people who were once enslaved at Whitney, plus how much each sold for and why. Seck, who originally gleaned all this information from documents found on the property, pointed out enslaved people who were deemed less valuable: a one-armed driver, a mentally-disabled woman, an old man with a hernia. Their prices were lower, but their fate was the same.
“Mentally-disabled or old slaves might be assigned to watch the master’s toddlers or something,” Dr. Seck said. “They sold for less, but were never retired. You worked till you died.”