Freedom Suits

In “Freedom Suits, African American Women, and the Genealogy of Slavery,” Loren Scheweninger demonstrates the importance that African American played in preserving the history of slavery. Enslaved people relied on oral history as a way to seek and, in some cases, successfully achieve their freedom. People who had white ancestry and had evidence (usually the testimony of others) to demonstrate it in the courts challenged legal definitions of race as well as increasingly restrictive laws regarding slavery. During the 18th century understandings of race were still in flux, and hundreds of African American men and women to file lawsuits against their masters challenging the law in order to pursue freedom.

Schweninger focuses on the enslaved descendants of Maria, a Spanish or Portuguese woman (her actual place of origin is still unknown) who was brought to Maryland and sold into slavery in 1686. Although she was not of African descent, her racial status was ill defined. She was categorized as an indentured slave, working on Robert Lockwood’s farm near Anne Arundel County. In the decades that followed, the different individuals who were directly related to Maria –identified by the author as the Boston family– were passed down and resold as slaves despite their ill-defined racial status. Beginning in 1795, many of them were successful in pursuing their freedom through the Maryland courts. The oral testimony of twenty-four free and enslaved African Americans who acknowledged Maria’s white ancestry (as the story was passed down by their relatives and neighbors) were pivotal for the few members of the Boston family that achieved their freedom. The author puts special emphasis on the oral depositions of Anne Brown. This is because she was the daughter of Mary Brown, an African American woman who knew Maria when she was alive and who was responsible to pass that information down to her relatives.

Although Schweninger’s focus is on the Boston family and Maria herself, throughout the article she also presents examples of other similar cases. Several biracial individuals who were held in bondage testified that their white relatives had been in consensual relationships with enslaved people. She also discusses how and to what extent the Maryland court system allowed (at least temporarily) enslaved people to use the same legal resources that were generally for white people only. As a result, the court’s decision to allow the different plaintiffs to use hearsay (be it from free or enslaved blacks or white people) “reveals a legal system that was more egalitarian at that moment than it would be for generations to come” (p. 41).

As a whole by examining freedom suits, this article provides scholars and students alike with a succinct analysis of some of the legal maneuvers that many African American relied on to seek their freedom. But more importantly, as indicated by the author, these “Freedom suits reveal cultural interactions among slaves, free blacks, and whites; the power that court actions could give to those held in bondage; and the role of African American women in maintaining family histories and sustaining oral traditions” (p. 37). Moreover, considering that Anne Brown and several other slaves who helped in the lawsuits resided near Anne Arundel County in a section of Maryland that is also known as the Swamp, both the Swamp and Brown are worth examining even further. In fact, for the purpose of our project, there is a possibility that their stories could provide us with relevant information regarding the preservation of oral history among enslaved people in the state of Maryland.

Adapted from Critical Summaries of Existing Literature by Yamid Macias

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