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By Connie Leinbach
Shining a light on slavery in the United States has been Dr. Loren Schweninger’s life work.
A retired Elizabeth Rosenthal Excellence Professor of History at UNC Greensboro, Schweninger for 18 years cataloged “freedom suits” filed by African-Americans that began after the Revolutionary War and continued until the Civil War.
“There were 18,000 petitions concerning race and slavery in the 15 Southern states, including Washington, D.C.,” he said in a recent interview. “Out of these, 2,000 were freedom suits.” Of those, 34 were in North Carolina.
Schweninger, a part-time islander who has had a home with his wife, Pat, in Widgeon Woods since 1985, tells the story of these suits in a new book “Appealing for Freedom: Freedom Suits in the South.”
The book has been accepted for publication by Oxford University Press in New York, but a publication date has not been set.
“It was an exciting project,” he said about the hunt for these records. “The great bulk of (this information) is not known.”
Schweninger is the author of several books on slavery. Having joined the UNC faculty in 1971, he was the university’s first professor of African-American history.
“Try getting a job teaching Black history when you’re white,” he said.
But he had good references.
His mentor and longtime collaborator was the celebrated John Hope Franklin, a renowned history professor at the University of Chicago where Schweninger attended in the late 1960s and received a Ph.D.
Franklin wrote the major textbook on African-American history, “From Slavery to Freedom,” The two became life-long friends and co-wrote two books: “Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation” and “In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South.”
Uncovering these freedom suits gives voice to the African-American slaves whose history is largely untold.
“This is the largest collection of the documentation of slavery in the southern states,” Schweninger said.
During the project, Schweninger visited 160 of the 1,100 courthouses in the South, visited 14 state archives and collected 18,000 petitions containing 140,000 pieces of paper.
“A day didn’t go by that I didn’t find something exciting,” he said about the project. “It’s amazing what they told their lawyers in these petitions. Again and again, the words of the slaves are in these documents.”
These documents hold the living facts of these Black lives.
“The abundance of personal history so immediately expressed by slaves and former slaves in their freedom pleas, coupled with other court documents and, on rare occasions, the testimony of black people themselves, presents us with perhaps the best source of real-time, first-hand information available to historians from the southern slaves’ perspective,” Schweninger writes in his forthcoming book.
The importation of African slaves was banned in 1808 by the United States Constitution, but while slavery existed, the laws surrounding freedom suits were complicated.
One of the points on which a slave could sue for freedom was any snippet of a white female’s blood.
“If your mother, grandmother or great-grandmother was white, you could sue for your freedom even if you were dark,” he said. The courts recognized this matriarchal lineage. Though Schweninger couldn’t find an official explanation of why, he found that the legal system for these suits mirrored Roman civil law: partus sequitur ventrem (“that which is brought forth follows the womb.”)
Remarkably, 79 percent of the suits filed in the South were granted either by jury trial or by a sole judge.
“In no other slave societies could a slave get ahold of a lawyer and make a petition for freedom,” he said.
It’s the dramatic stories Schweninger found that enthralled him.
In Kentucky, he found a document from 1835 detailing the sale of a slave woman sold for $5.
“In parentheses, it said she could not be sold for ‘her age and decrepitude,’” he said. “I almost cried.”
One especially remarkable story is that of Amelia Green, whose house in New Bern still stands.
A “free woman of color” born circa 1740, she was a weaver who, in the early 1790s when, in her own words, she was “advanced in life,” began an eleven-year struggle to free various members of her family.
According to Schweninger’s research, Green liberated her five children and two grandchildren.
Schweninger figures she purchased three of them for $500 to $600, a sum that would equal about $10,000 today.
“She saved her money, and how she was able to save that much we don’t know,” Schweninger said. “She was one of the most remarkable women.”
Ironically, Green’s granddaughter, Kitty, married John Carruthers Stanly, a former slave himself and the son of a white landowner and an African slave, who grew up to become a wealthy landowner in New Bern and the largest free black slaveholder in the South.