Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South

By Kimberly M. Welch

328 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 13 halftones, 1 map, appends., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5915-2
    Published: February 2020
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3643-6
    Published: February 2018
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-3645-0
    Published: January 2018
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5389-9
    Published: January 2018

John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

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Awards & distinctions

2019 Cromwell Prize, American Society for Legal History

2018 James H. Broussard Best First Book Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic

Co-Winner of the 2019 J. Willard Hurst Prize, Law & Society Association

2018 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History, Langum Charitable Trust

2019 Vanderbilt University Chancellor's Award for Research

In the antebellum Natchez district, in the heart of slave country, black people sued white people in all-white courtrooms. They sued to enforce the terms of their contracts, recover unpaid debts, recuperate back wages, and claim damages for assault. They sued in conflicts over property and personal status. And they often won. Based on new research conducted in courthouse basements and storage sheds in rural Mississippi and Louisiana, Kimberly Welch draws on over 1,000 examples of free and enslaved black litigants who used the courts to protect their interests and reconfigure their place in a tense society.

To understand their success, Welch argues that we must understand the language that they used--the language of property, in particular--to make their claims recognizable and persuasive to others and to link their status as owner to the ideal of a free, autonomous citizen. In telling their stories, Welch reveals a previously unknown world of black legal activity, one that is consequential for understanding the long history of race, rights, and civic inclusion in America.

Open Access ebook sponsored by an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships Open Book Program.

About the Author

Kimberly M. Welch is assistant professor of history and law at Vanderbilt University.
For more information about Kimberly M. Welch, visit the Author Page.


“A remarkably well-researched and truly startling history.”--Journal of American History

“Anyone who reads Welch’s work will be richly rewarded.” --Canadian Journal of History

“…impressively researched study…Welch’s work has important implications for historians of African American history in the antebellum South but also for scholars of Reconstruction and Black legal activism in later periods.” – The Journal of African American History

“A groundbreaking book that significantly refashions conventional understandings of African Americans’ use of the law in the antebellum South.” --American Nineteenth Century History

“Kimberly Welch has done a remarkable job piecing together a rich set of stories from these evasive texts and artifacts, bringing to life the world of ordinary people who were able to use the courts in extraordinary ways.”—Ariela Gross, author of What Blood Won’t Tell

“In this compelling, carefully researched book, Welch uses local court records to uncover the ways in which black litigants in the antebellum South advanced claims to legal personhood. The prevailing sanctity of private property created space within which they could seek loan repayment, wages due, inheritance, and sometimes even freedom, despite the fact that granting such claims to black litigants could undermine white supremacy. Written with a light touch and telling detail, this landmark study of race and law introduces us to men and women of African descent who took their white neighbors to court to assert rights they insisted should be respected.”--Rebecca J. Scott, coauthor of Freedom Papers