By Kristen St. Cyr
Southern legal systems made it incredibly difficult for slaves to gain their freedom. In Louisiana specifically, there were many factors—legal and otherwise—that impacted the ability of slaves to gain their freedom. Combatting the emancipation and manumission laws within Louisiana required a significant understanding of the law, so those who decided to fight for their freedom during this period creatively negotiated their freedom. Ingenuity to contest enslavement and personal fortitude was vital for gaining and keeping freedom. The following cases show the legal strategies people used to become free or maintain their freedom from enslavement in the East Baton Rouge Parish.
The Baton Rouge Legal System
Louisiana’s complex legal system made gaining and maintaining freedom from slavery hard. And a variety of factors made freedom harder to obtain, including inconsistent slave codes and racial biases of the time. Additionally, Louisiana’s constantly changing ownership influenced law regarding slavery. For example, according to the Law Library of Louisiana, freedom “Could not be granted out of mere generosity. The Council required an extraordinary reason for freedom,” during French rule in Louisiana.
However, during the Antebellum period, after Louisiana had joined the United States, “Enslaved persons could no longer compel their masters to allow them to purchase their freedom as they could under Spanish law, but they were allowed to enter into contracts to do so.” These inconsistent laws made petitioning for freedom a strenuous process that required approval from a court that was innately unfair to enslaved people or often free people of color.
Despite these difficulties, many slaves successfully petitioned their freedom and used their creativity to free others, like family, or petition for more rights as a free person of color.
Willed Out of Slavery
Of the overwhelming number of petitions for freedom, the petitions with the highest success rates were when a white person, especially the owner, petitioned on behalf of a slave. White voices had more influence in the government and were therefore more successful. The will or final testament of a slave owner would be an example of a white person using their influence to help free their slaves. The executor of the will would need to present the petition of freedom to the judge and court for approval. Without a will or final testament from the deceased owner stating their intention to free the slave in question, it was difficult for enslaved people to become free. Additionally, familial disagreements, unpaid debts, and other circumstances would make freedom harder to obtain.
The Vail family conflict is an example of how contesting a will can impact a slave’s attempt to gain their freedom. According to the court documents, the deceased father, Henry C. Vail had entered a “relationship” with a slave named Jane, who became pregnant with his child. Within the will, he stipulated that the executor of the will, Abraham Bird, must begin the emancipation process for Jane and her child and give her a share of Vail’s estate.
The relatives of the late Henry C. Vail, the defendants of this case, stated that they would not comply with the will due to the nature of Henry C. Vails’ relationship with Jane. They labeled the relationship “concubinage” and argued that as a concubine, Jane had no legal recourse to herself. The other objection the Vail’s had was about the inheritance Henry C. Vail was leaving to Jane. While the exact nature of the relationship between Jane and Henry C. Vail is unknown, the contention of the will caused the emancipation process to be prolonged. Later, the case would be appealed, reopened, reversed, and finally remanded, lasting a year longer than intended and delaying Jane and her child’s hope for freedom. In the end, Jane and her child did not receive the freedom they were entitled to and remained enslaved. This case shows the impact of white voices on the freedom petitions. Had the Vail family not contested the will, Jane and her child’s chance at freedom would have greatly increased. And while the petition was denied due to white intervention, other cases show how white voices have helped slaves and people of color by amplifying their cause to a white court.
“Vouched” Out of Slavery
Another more common avenue to freedom for slaves relied on voluntary release by their owners, specifically through self-purchase or kindness. Though these two paths to freedom are slightly different from each other, both are heavily influenced by the white voice of their owners. Often with these cases, the petitioner, usually the owner, will write the petition on behalf of the enslaved person. An example of this would be the case of a man named Louis, the former slave of Joseph Larguier.
According to the case file, Louis was a slave given to Larguier after the death of his father, Louis’ previous owner. Through his positive conduct, Louis eventually convinced Larguier to emancipate him. And so, Larguier stated his intentions to emancipate Louis to the East Baton Rouge court and sheriff’s office. According to Larguier, Louis was, “an obedient and faithful servant” who had “never run away” nor “committed a crime.” Because there needed to be a justifiable cause for release, Larguier needed to convince the court that Louis deserved his freedom.
In addition to owners vouching for their slaves, self-purchase was another common avenue of seeking emancipation. The practice of self-purchase was most common during the Spanish reign in Louisiana. However, it was rare for enslaved persons to do so during the Antebellum period because Louisiana state laws prohibited this practice in 1807. Despite this there are still cases from the Antebellum period of soon-to-be-emancipated slaves who offered to pay for their freedom or the freedom of their family members. The enslaved person purchased their freedom from their owner, who would in turn petition the court and sheriff’s office. Tactics like this demonstrate the ingenuity that many enslaved persons used to gain their freedom
Wrongful Capture & Enslavement
During the Antebellum period, many free people of color were forced to leave the state after their emancipation to decrease the population of free persons. This is corroborated by 1831 La. Acts No. 46. at 98-100, which forced emancipated slaves to leave the state within a certain period at the risk of re-enslavement. Once gone, these former slaves would not be allowed back into the state. Laws like this emphasize the legal hurdles free people of color had to navigate and why many who failed to comply were forcefully re-enslaved or jailed. Within the following cases, both plaintiffs state they are free persons who were wrongfully captured and imprisoned.
The case of George Stewart allows us to see a glimpse into the numerous stipulations that Black people had to face to obtain their freedom. George Stewart was born in New York City to free people of color. According to court documents, he had a lighter complexion, which labeled him as a “mulatto,” and was working as a barber when he was captured in Baton Rouge by Benjamin Bryan and imprisoned. Despite his status as a free person from birth, Stewart had to prove the legitimacy of his freedom by adhering to strict stipulations like proving lineages or the presentation of freedom papers. In his case, he had multiple sources vouch for his free status through letters and court appearances. Additionally, Stewart had his freedom papers sent to him via a friend. Only after these documents and testimonies were provided was he released and given money in damages from the man who arrested him as a “runaway,” Benjamin Bryan. George Stewart’s case illustrates how racial biases, like those regarding his “mulatto” skin, or the ability to present his freedom papers, could have been the difference between enslavement and freedom.
Another issue free people of color had to face lies in the biases regarding their physical appearance. In the case of Adaline, racial biases worked to the advantage of the plaintiff. The decision of the court relied on the physical attributes of Adaline to determine if she was free or not. According to her case documents, Adaline was captured and imprisoned by Benjamin Bryan on April 4th, 1851. Bryan wrote to her presumed “owner” stating that Adaline was captured and needed to be claimed.
However, the presumed owner did not claim her and said that Adaline was not their slave. Furthermore, many Southern states only enslaved those born of enslaved African mothers during the Antebellum period. Though Adaline was free, she relied on her status as an Indigenous person to avoid enslavement—it was not uncommon for captured people of color to claim to have Indigenous blood. Adaline’s imprisonment likely stemmed from the racial biases of the time, and she was arrested because of assumptions made about her skin color. And even though the petitions analyzed were both granted to the petitioners, similar petitions were often denied due to the person’s skin color or lack of freedom papers.
These cases are some of the many examples of how the flaws and the personal biases of the white legal system in Baton Rouge, affected free and enslaved people of color. The Vail case reveals how white voices could hurt a case, while the Larguier case demonstrates how white voices could be used as an advantage. The cases of illegal enslavement show how the racial biases and draconian laws in Antebellum Louisiana had to be navigated by people of color. These cases, like many of the others, show the ingenuity that people of color employed to gain freedom for themselves.
- Adaline in Habeas Corpus, June 27th, 1851, 6th Judicial District Court, East Baton Rouge Clerk of Court Archives
- A. Bird versus A. Alexander, Wife, and A. B Vail, 23 March 1850-10 March 1851, 6th Judicial District Court, East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court Archives
- George Stewart in Habeas Corpus, February 10th, 1838, 3rd Judicial District Court, East Baton Rouge Clerk of Court Archives
- Petition for Emancipation of boy Louis belonging to J. Larguier, 7 January 1851- 25 February 1851, 6th Judicial District Court, East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court