Property Rights and Wrongs

Property law and the African-American

One of the enduring realities of genealogical research in the United States is how many of our ancestors’ lives were touched by the institution of slavery. Whether descended from slaves or — like The Legal Genealogist — from slaveowners, we all need to know more, understand more, put more into the context of the times, if we want to trace our roots through the records of that time.

This is a real issue for me, since I’ve only recently started coming to terms with my own family’s slaveholding past. And as I’ve begun to really delve into those records, the one striking — even jolting — characteristic that keeps coming up again and again is the issue of property.

Slaves weren’t treated by the law as people, but as property. And it was the law of property that was often used to try to keep freedmen from having options beyond field work even after emancipation — and even to steal the freedmen’s children back into a form of legal bondage because of their parents’ lack of property.

Clearly, from being treated as property to having their property stolen by those who used the law against the freedmen, African Americans’ experience at the courthouse had only one bright spot: it created records for the genealogist-descendants

And that’s the subject we’re going to explore next Thursday night, December 20th, when I join Bernice Bennett, host of BlogTalkRadio’s Research at the National Archives & Beyond, for Property Rights and Wrongs: African-Americans at the Courthouse.

This internet-based broadcast is free, there’s no need to register in advance, and you don’t need any special software or hardware to listen in. You can even join in the discussion and ask questions live, or type them into a chat box if you’re not comfortable being on air.

It’s a one-hour show, and we’ll get underway at 9 p.m. EST / 8 p.m. CST / 7 p.m. MST / 6 p.m. PST. And, like all of Bernice’s broadcasts (check ‘em out!), it’s recorded so you can listen in at another time if your schedule doesn’t let you listen to it live.

Hope you can join me and Bernice Bennett next Thursday, December 20.

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6 Responses to Property Rights and Wrongs

  1. I’ll try to be there next Thursday. I’m tutoring a student at 10, but maybe I can push that off until 10:30.

    You are stating eloquently the dismal situation of black people after emancipation. Even though they were technically not “property” as chattel, they went from slavery to “slavery without the chains” — legal bondage by “work contract,” barely any rights to own property, constant intimidation, the threat of lynching, disenfranchisement at the polls, and the misery of sharecropping.

    My ancestors on both sides were slaveholders in South Carolina, as I discovered only 10 years ago. I sympathize with your statement that it is a “real issue.” It took me 7 years to research and write my family memoir (on my website), a way of coming to terms with the fact that my ancestors belonged to the “bad guys” of history. I created a framework to explore their psychological makeup. What were their minds like? Stephen Pinker (“The Better Angels,” just published) believes that all perpetrators of evil acts believe that they are doing the right thing. I agree. Still, I argue (without blaming anyone) that slaveholding affected the character of my family, and the character of most white Southerners.

    Sorry to run on. Hope to be there next Thursday night. I’ll register now.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Registration not required, Mariann, and it’ll be recorded in case you can’t be there. And I agree with you: it’s always going to affect those who did it, those affected by it, and generations into the future.

  2. You might be interested in an article just published in the Maryland Genealogical Society Journal:

    Michael Hait, “Somerset County Citations for Negro Apprenticeships, November 1864,” Maryland Genealogical Society Journal, Volume 53 (2012): 521–538.

    Beginning on 1 November 1864, the very day that the new state constitution ended slavery, the Somerset County Orphans Court issued citations for nearly every African American mother in the county, to appear before the Court and prove why their children should not be bound out as apprentices. The article discusses the debate over this issue when the new constitution was being written, and names all of the mothers and children identified in these records through December——literally hundreds of women!

    And it’s written by your greatest fan!

    See http://mdgensoc.org/ for more information.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Very good to know, Michael, and thanks for letting me know the article is available to members of the Maryland Genealogical Society. These State Society journals are an awfully good reason to join!!

  3. Pingback: Colonial Christmas, How To Tips and more Straight Talk – Follow Friday | finding forgotten stories

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