Current Winners – American Legal History

The Winner of the 2018 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History is Black Litigants in the Antebellum South, by Kimberly M. Welch (North Carolina).

Black Litigants in the Antebellum South by Kimberly M. WelchWelch’s meticulous research into obscure and tattered court records of the antebellum American South has yielded some surprising results. The title would encompass freedom suits of blacks wrongfully held as slaves and also criminal suits against slaves. Freedom suits are discussed, but her focus is on free persons of color suing whites, for debts, breach of contract, back wages, and the entire range of civil liability.

The surprise is that these free blacks suing whites in the antebellum South had no difficulty finding white lawyers to represent them, and that they often won their cases, even when tried by juries. These legal victories over whites, she argues, gave the free black community a small space of agency and self-autonomy. Welch argues that these results demonstrate that the antebellum South valued property rights, even property owned by Negroes, over a total domination of blacks. One could argue further that it demonstrates the value put on legality itself by antebellum whites over a total white supremacy. That is curious because after the War, whites of the South valued their hegemony over blacks more than legality itself (lynching, barriers to black voting, etc.).

Welch appends a harrowing description of the researcher’s difficulties in locating and even reading these obscure records. So it may be narrow-minded to point out that this is only a case study, involving only four counties of Mississippi and Louisiana. But what a stimulus for further work! She points out that many courthouses were burned by invading Union forces, but there must be many other localities where the antebellum court records have survived and could be used to test her findings (Montgomery, Alabama?).

On top of her careful research and stimulating findings, Welch also writes clearly and made her work a pleasure to read. – DJL, Sr.

Two books won Finalist status for the 2018 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History: Child Labor in America: The Epic Legal Struggle to Protect Children, by John A. Fliter (Kansas) and The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era, by Christopher W. Schmidt (Chicago).

Child Labor in America: The Epic Legal Struggle to Protect Children by John A. FliterIn Child Labor, John A. Fliter comprehensively and vividly chronicles the complex political and constitutional issues involved in what the title so aptly describes as the “epic struggle” against child labor. This carefully researched book offers new insights into many subjects, including the enactment and judicial nullification of the first two federal child labor statutes, the subsequent failure of efforts to add a child labor amendment to the federal Constitution, and the ultimate enactment during the New Deal of a statute that withstood the U.S. Supreme Court’s scrutiny. The book concludes with a survey of recent efforts to roll back these hard-fought reforms. – WGR

The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era by Christopher W. SchmidtIn The Sit-Ins, Christopher W. Schmidt carefully analyzes the early 1960s lunch counter sit-ins, in Greensboro, North Carolina and then sweeping across the American South, from the perspectives of the protesting students, their lawyers, sympathizers, opponents, and the Congress that was then considering civil rights legislation that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The book describes the legal difficulty of using the 14th Amendment to protect protestors because the private owners of public accommodations are not the “state actors” that the 14th Amendment was designed to reach. As a result, the monumental 1964 Act was placed under the Congress’s commerce clause powers and not the 14th Amendment. Schmidt pays particular attention to the squabbles within the Supreme Court over the scope of the 14th Amendment in the struggle for equal accommodations, and writes clearly about the legal issues involved. – DJL, Sr.

 

 


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