The Demands of Justice

Enslaved Women, Capital Crime, and Clemency in Early Virginia

By Tamika Y. Nunley

The Demands of Justice

258 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 9 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7312-7
    Published: April 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7311-0
    Published: April 2023

Paperback Available April 2023, but pre-order your copy today!

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Award-winning historian Tamika Y. Nunley has unearthed the stories of enslaved Black women charged by their owners with poisoning, theft, murder, infanticide, and arson. While free Black and white people accused of capital crimes received a hearing, trial, and, if convicted, an opportunity to appeal, none of these options were available to enslaved people. Conviction was final, and only the state or owners could spare their accused chattel of punishment by death. For enslaved women in Virginia, clemency was not uncommon, but Nunley shows why this act ultimately benefitted owners and punished the accused with sale outside of the state as the best possible outcome.

Demonstrating how crimes, convictions, and clemency functioned within a slave society that upheld the property interests of white Virginians, Nunley reveals the frequency with which owners preferred to keep the accused in bondage, which allowed them, behind the veil of paternalism, to continue to benefit from Black women's labor. This so-called clemency also sought to rob Black women of the power they exercised when they committed capital crimes. The testimonies that Nunley has collected and analyzed offer compelling glimpses of the self-identities forged by Black women as they attempted to resist enslavement and the limits of justice available to them in the antebellum courtroom.

About the Author

Tamika Y. Nunley is associate professor of history at Cornell University.
For more information about Tamika Y. Nunley, visit the Author Page.

Reviews

"This brave, important study poses haunting questions about the legal system during slavery. Through detail that is both rich and harrowing, Tamika Nunley uses the capital cases of enslaved Black women and girls to show how their alleged crimes challenged immoral laws and exposed the fictitious nature of justice in America. It will profoundly shape future histories of race, gender, and carceral regimes."—Kali Gross, author of Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso and co-author of A Black Women's History of the United States

"Tamika Nunley has uncovered dozens of heartbreaking cases that bring to light the struggles of enslaved women to resist slavery even as they fought (sometimes quite literally) to protect themselves, their kin, and their communities. Enslaved women's acts of resistance take center stage. Each of the stories Nunley tells stuns and horrifies in its own particular way."—Rebecca Anne Goetz, New York University