Challenging Inequality in America's Civil Courts: African American litigants in the era of Jim Crow

This session will take place at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting | Conference on American History in Washington, D.C. Read the full abstract and speaker information here.

In this panel—as the title hopefully suggests—we are interested in thinking about how African Americans used civil courts to challenge inequality during Jim Crow. It is part of a broader, and growing, conversation about how African Americans understood, and were affected by, legal issues that were not explicitly about race. We know that the courts shored up slavery and racial segregation; provided a forum for racial identity to be clarified, articulated, and imposed; and enabled the criminalization of black men and women. We know that the Supreme Court played a central role in stripping away—and then reinstating—rights related to race, in cases such as Plessy v Ferguson and Brown v Board of Education. But how did black men and women engage and employ the law in their everyday lives? How did they attempt to use the law to improve their lives—in ways both related and unrelated to their race? When, and why, did African Americans turn to the nation’s civil courts? How did black people’s lived experiences under Jim Crow shape the law, a corpus that is often thought of as “raceless”? These are some of the questions that we are wrestling with in our research, and which we will think through in our conversation in Washington, D.C. this April.

Much of the new scholarship that explores these and related questions is centred on either antebellum America, or the civil rights movement. In this panel, we instead fix our attention on African Americans’ interactions with the civil courts in the late 19th century and early twentieth-century. Each of the panelists approach the questions from different perspectives, and illuminate a different aspect of the relationship between black southerners and the law. In her paper, Hollie Pich draws on her archival research in local civil courts in Memphis, Tennessee, in order to understand how African Americans familiarised themselves with the legal system and prepared themselves for court. Myisha S. Eatmon and Melissa Milewski both focus on African Americans in the courtroom. Myisha S. Eatmon draws on her research in personal injury cases stemming from white-on-black violence to examine black litigants’ civil litigation strategies. As some white southerners pursued extrajudicial means of attaining justice, African Americans worked within formal legal systems to pursue justice for perceived and actual injuries. Melissa Milewski considers how gender shaped the experiences of black litigants, focusing on African American women in civil suits that reached southern state appellate courts—looking specifically at the strategies they pursued. While each of these papers illuminate a different aspect of African Americans’ interactions with the civil courts during the era of Jim Crow, we hope that during our conversation with each other, our commentator, Barbara Welke, and the audience, we will be able to see the connective tissue that binds them together.

We also hope that this panel will highlight not only the exciting new work taking place in African American socio-legal history, but will also prompt attendees to re-think the relationship that other oppressed groups—such as immigrants, the LGBTQI+ community, white women, and other women of colour—have had with the law, and specifically civil courts, throughout history. Additionally, our panel offers an alternative to the ways that attorneys read and use cases. The lawyer’s role is to strip cases of their historical context to get to the legal rule applicable to their case, but the historian’s role is to embrace and examine the social and historical context of a case and explore the ways that this particular context has shaped “the law,” whether that means statute, legislation, or other types of policy.

Posted: March 26, 2020
Tagged: Conference, AfAm, Previews, Race