In partnership with the Maryland Center for the Book at Maryland Humanities, the Virginia Center for the Book at Virginia Humanities presents William G. Thomas III as he shares his intricate and intensely human history of enslaved families of Prince George’s County, Maryland, and the hundreds of lawsuits they brought against slavery.
Thomas’s book, A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War was recently announced the winner of the 2021 Neiman Foundation/Columbia School of Journalism Mark Lynton Prize in History. Thomas will discuss the longest and most complex legal challenge to slavery in American history, lawyers who supported the enslaved families, the slaveholders and others who defended slavery, and its present day legacies, in conversation with Omar Eaton-Martinez, Assistant Division Chief, Historical Resources for Prince George’s County Parks & Recreation.
Watch the video of this event here and read the transcript below:
Thanks to our bookseller for this event, UVA Bookstore.
“Slaves sued slaveholders in every court available to them and in every jurisdiction they could reach from the very beginning of the United States.”William Thomas, A Question of Freedom
“A rich, roiling history that Thomas recounts with eloquence and skill. . . . The very existence of freedom suits assumed that slavery could only be circumscribed and local; what Thomas shows in his illuminating book is how this view was eventually turned upside down in decisions like Dred Scott. ‘Freedom was local,’ Thomas writes. ‘Slavery was national.’” —Jennifer Szalai, New York Times
“Here is a strikingly original, eloquent, and humane book on an inhumane institution. The story restores the names and histories of people who fought for freedom for generations.” —Edward Ayers, author of The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America
“With its vivid narration, revelatory research, careful contextualization, and bracing honesty, A Question of Freedom demonstrates that freedom suits were not isolated episodes but instead a major form of slave resistance, with far-reaching and ongoing effects in the long freedom struggle. This book is essential reading for understanding the history of slavery and the modern debate over reparations.” —Elizabeth R. Varon, author of Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War
LINDSEY BAKER: Hello, and welcome to Challenging Slavery in the Courtroom: A Question of Freedom, featuring the book of that name by William G. Thomas III. I’m Lindsey Baker, executive director of Maryland Humanities. We are pleased to cohost this event from the Maryland Center for the Book at Maryland Humanities with the Virginia Center for the Book at Virginia Humanities. A Question of Freedom shares the history of enslaved people’s families in Maryland’s Prince George’s County who sued for their freedom. In addition to hosting this event, Maryland Humanities provided a grant in support of an animated feature length film based on the book called The Bell Affair. The anticipated release date of the film is fall 2021. Thank you for joining us.
MATTHEW GIBSON: Greetings, everyone. I’m Matthew Gibson. I’m director of Virginia Humanities. And I’m very pleased that we could host this event this evening with Maryland, our neighboring humanities council. It’s always good to share the stage with our great neighbors in Maryland.
I’m also very pleased to welcome Will, who I’ve known actually for quite a while. We met back in the early days of digital humanities at the University of Virginia. Back then it was called humanities computing, for crying out loud. And he was directing the Virginia Center for Digital History, and I was just down the hallway at the Electronics Tech Center, and we collaborated on several digital humanities projects, including Valley of the Shadow and Geography of Slavery. I’m so happy he is with us this evening, in conversation with Omar Eaton Martinez. And I want to congratulate Will especially on the fact that A Question of Freedom was recently announced as the winner of the 2021 Nieman Foundation Columbia School of Journalism Mark Lynton Prize in History. Congrats, Will.
A couple of notes before we hand the program over to our speakers. First, please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom, not the chat. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the closed captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope that you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, the UVA bookstore, please visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our schedule of virtual events and watch past events.
Now, I’m going to turn this back over to Lindsey.
LINDSEY BAKER: Thank you, Matt. Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers. William J. Thomas III, author of A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War, is the Angle chair in the humanities and professor of history at the University of Nebraska. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a Lincoln Prize finalist and was cofounder and director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia. Welcome, William.
Omar Eaton-Martinez, assistant division chief, Historical Resources for Prince George’s County Parks and Recreation, is a museum leader whose professional vision is to transform communities through a co-stewardship of narratives in the spirit of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. He stands in the gap to advocate for the unheard and the unseen through public history, art, culture, and science. Thank you all for joining us today. Will, Omar, over to you.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Good evening, everyone. This is a great, awesome opportunity for us to get together and discuss this great work that Will produced. I am almost at a loss of words on which questions to start off with just because it brings up so much. But one of the things I wanted to do just to introduce people who may have not had the opportunity to read it was to read a quick summary. So, if you’ll just indulge me.
The story of the longest and most complex legal challenge to slavery in American history. For over seventy years and five generations, the enslaved families of Prince George’s County, Maryland, filed hundreds of suits for their freedom against a powerful circle of slaveholders, taking their cause all the way to the Supreme Court. Between 1787 and 1861, these lawsuits challenged the legitimacy of slavery in American law and put slavery on trial in the nation’s capital. Piecing together evidence once dismissed in court and buried in the archive, William Thomas tells an intricate and intensely human story of the enslaved families the Butlers, Queens, Mahoneys, and others; their lawyers, among them a young Francis Scott Key; and the slaveholders who fought to defend slavery, beginning with a Jesuit priest who held some of the largest plantations in the nation and founded the college at Georgetown. A Question of Freedom asks us to reckon with the moral problem of slavery and its legacies in the present day.
And one of the things that I wanted to kind of jump off with, Will, is when I look at the book A Question of Freedom, it has a subtitle, and it says the families who challenged slavery from the nation’s founding to the Civil War. I don’t think we think about these types of challenges from the context of families. If you could just start us off with your thoughts about what that did for you as a researcher, scholar, and historian.
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Thank you, Omar, and thank you to the Virginia Humanities and the Maryland Humanities and Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m really glad to be here tonight and to be with you all.
Families were at the center of this story, and it took me a while to realize that, mainly because of the question you raised, Omar. How do we think about slavery in American history? And often we think about exceptional individuals: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman. And we don’t often think of named families. But when I first started researching the freedom suits, I started with one case in particular, a case that went to the United States Supreme Court. And the case was called Queen v. Hepburn. And this case was early in American history, 1813. That was a surprise to me. I knew about the Dred Scott freedom suit in 1857, decided in the Supreme Court. One of the most infamous, notorious cases in American history. But I did not realize how many freedom suits were brought in the earlier period, right after the American Revolution, and really right on through the 1840s and 1850s.
So, I went to the National Archives because I was interested in this one case, Queen v. Hepburn. And when I looked at the index of the court records for that case, it was clear that there were five other cases by the Queen family. So, what I thought was one freedom suit was really five freedom suits by the Queen family.
And not only that, but when I traced those freedom suits back in time into Maryland, into the 1790s, there were dozens of freedom suits by the Queen family. In fact, all of the freedom suits that I write about are family based. And they are family centric, and the networks of the families are really at the heart of these freedom suits. And the lived experience of slavery was a family experience.
These cases were always about families, and they were intergenerational. That’s the other big point that I realized in working on this and writing this book. That these cases were filed across one, two, sometimes three generations of a family. So, families are at the center of this story, and they’re really at the center of a strategy of freedom-making. The families are navigating to break their enslavement, to end their un-freedom. And that navigating—that negotiating—included, significantly, these legal actions.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: That’s incredible. I think about the idea of living in a society where we see the humanity in one another. I think about the racial moments that we’ve had throughout the hundreds of years of our country and even when it was a colony of England. But I can’t help but kind of go backwards here. So, if you’ll just work with me for one second. I’m thinking about right now, in 2012, 2013, 2014 we had these moments that were captured by social media. And we had this incredible movement called Black Lives Matter, based on our racial terror. And the difference would be that we had the platform of social media to tell and expose these stories and these anti-Black and very racially violent happenings throughout our country.
Fifty years prior to that, we had television as a new advent and getting popular in people’s homes. And we had televised, seeing people peacefully protesting getting hosed down by the state and getting dogs sicked on them. And so that was a moment.
For me, it seems like these courtrooms might have done the same thing earlier on in history. I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit more about how these families used the courtrooms as platforms to exercise agency, and while they were exercising that agency, really hold slavery accountable? Put it on trial as an institution.
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Yes. That’s absolutely right. I think the courtrooms were public spaces where information was shared, where enslaved families put slaveholders literally on trial. And so, one of the things we have to remember about the freedom suits is that they were civil actions. So, in the nineteenth century, neither the defendant nor the plaintiff in a civil action could take the stand and speak for themselves. So, the slaveholder who was a defendant could not speak for him or herself. Could not take the stand. And enslaved people could not take the stand. But the point here is that, in these civil actions, an enslaved family was suing an individual slaveholder for freedom.
Now some of these successful families at law, particularly the Queens—Edward Queen, who files one of the first and most important freedom suits in Maryland, he wins his freedom. And then he sues the Reverend John Ashton, the Jesuit priest at White Marsh Plantation, for restitution. So, he follows his freedom suit with a restitution suit, directly holding Ashton responsible for the time that he had been enslaved and therefore the value of that time.
But you ask about the venue of the court. I think it’s so important. These freedom suits took place in the state house in Annapolis. That was where the General Court of the Western Shore of Maryland met. Right in the great hallway. Literally in the open, practically beneath the rotunda. So, the General Court of the Western Shore met in the great hall of the Maryland state house in Annapolis.
So, imagine the crowds and the movement and the people and who was there, and the freedom suits being filed and discussed openly and argued openly in front of the Maryland senators and delegates. And anybody from the public who was either a witness or a participant would have been there.
So, these were exceedingly public and directed at individually just about every major slaveholder in Maryland. So, while they did not have social media or cameras or television, you’re absolutely right. The performative, theatrical, and the venue or the court itself was critically important in elevating the significance of these freedom suits. These were not quiet affairs. These were highly public, and they were highly political.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: I think that, just thinking about that analogy, to those moments and everything that occurred in between—because we understand that this was a continuum of activism—is that there’s sort of this pricking that happens to people when they see that, or they witness it. Or maybe they read what happened when it was covered by the newspaper. And it’s sort of like a little bit more of an awakening happened for people who may not believe this is true, right? Because a lot of people thought that slavery was not anything that was damaging.
And because they grew up with that and were socialized to think that way, they didn’t have any real reason to question it. And I think that the idea of these freedom suits, the idea of the Civil Rights Movement that was televised, the idea that we’re having right now, the moment that we’re having right now with everything being captured on social media—it’s just more and more pricking, and it’s happening little by little. But we still come up sort of with these same unfortunate situations or really horrible situations that we have today racially, so we have to still continue to peel back the onion.
There was a quote that I saw. I think it was in the book, or it might’ve been in one of the talks that I saw you do earlier about the book, where you talked about freedom was local, but slavery was national. Can you talk about that a bit?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Right. Well, this is one of the things that I learned the most about in this research. I thought that the law of slavery seemed fairly self-evident. That somehow slavery was just uniformly understood as legal or constitutional. And so that was where I started with this. And the more I peeled back the layers of the onion of these freedom suits—the more I peeled those layers back, I realized gradually that slavery as a matter of law was dubious and unstable and contested and challenged. This is true in the United States, and it’s true in England in the eighteenth century.
So, there was this whole body of legal precedent and decisions in England that had to do with slavery as unlawful, as unnatural, as a violation of natural rights, and a violation of English common law. And all of those precedents—and there had been cases that turned both ways—there was a battle essentially in the legal courts over the nature of slavery itself. And that battle continued in the early United States.
In fact, the freedom suits in Maryland were the critical ones for testing this concept of whether slavery had any sanction—any legitimacy—in English common law. This is because the Queen family and the Mahoney family, who bring these monumentally significant freedom suits—they start in 1791, and they go pretty much right through the 1790s and into the 1800s and end up in the Supreme Court of the United States in 1813 in the Queen v. Hepburn case that I really started with.
Both of those cases argued that their ancestor—that they were descended from a free woman who set foot in England. A free woman of color who set foot in England. And so rather than arguing that they were descended from a free white woman, the Queens and the Mahoneys were making the argument that they were descended from a free woman of color, who was free because she had been in England. And therefore, because she spent time in England, and English common law in these cases in England made her free. That she could not be enslaved in England and therefore was free.
Well, that idea—that very idea at the heart of the Queen and the Mahoney freedom suits—was being introduced and argued in the Maryland courts. That concept, if it were validated in an American court of law, would’ve been extremely powerful and profoundly significant for delegitimizing slavery as somehow legal or legitimate or sanctioned by the law.
So, this is the battle that these freedom suits really raise and create, and it is a significant contest and a challenge to slavery as dubious under the law. It’s somehow not legitimate.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: This is great. I’m going to pull off one question from the Q&A that I think is more in the flow of where we’re heading to right now in our conversation. It comes from Tom Powers, and he says, “How is it that enslaved families even had access to courts?”
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: That’s a really good question, and it goes back to, Omar, the question you asked earlier about families. First of all, there was a common law precedent that anyone could have access to the courts—to petition the court. And by Maryland law, enslaved people could bring petitions for freedom. And so, they do. But you’re also asking, I think, how does this knowledge work? How do the resources necessary to a family or a person to really think to bring this kind of a legal action? And this is one of the most important aspects of this story, I think—is the sophistication, the legal knowledge, the political acumen, the determination, and the courage of families like the Queens and the Mahoneys. And I think about how they transferred this knowledge across the generations so that they knew the disposition of all of these freedom suits in various counties and before various courts. They knew who the attorneys were, they knew how to find the attorneys, and they did so.
We see this particularly with Charles Mahoney, one of the heroes of this book—I think a hero in Maryland history who has gone unacknowledged in American history and in Maryland history. It’s Charles Mahoney who brings the Mahoney lawsuit—the Mahoney freedom suit. It lasts twelve years. It goes through three jury trials, two appeals. And his voice is not in the record, but at every deposition he is physically present. His presence is noted and written down at each one of these depositions. And what that says, I think, is how sophisticated Charles Mahoney is. He is present. He is there. He gets the witnesses. He travels to Washington D.C. to find white witnesses who will testify about his ancestor. He gathers testimony. And some of the families—some of the enslaved petitioners in these depositions—they interrupt, and they ask questions of white men and women. Directly interrogating them in the deposition itself.
So, I think these enslaved families were repositories of genealogical information about themselves—three and four and five generations in Maryland. And they were repositories of legal knowledge and political knowledge, and they acted in many ways to contest their un-freedom. And we see that in the freedom suits.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: I love these stories because of the undeniable agency that’s exercised here by people who were held against their will. And for someone who’s thinking about—I know we had this discussion when you and I met—about the idea of the historical continuum. That time is on one continuum. We usually kind of partition it as the past, the present, and the future, using a Western framework in how we always interrogate that. But we all know, if we took a few seconds to realize, it’s all connected.
The reason why I bring that up is because we tend to, with certain historical narratives in our country, is historicize and, in some cases, folk lore-icize what happened during slavery. And for me, when I hear these stories that you have brought to light, it starts to debunk this type of work.
But what I’m really focused on too, especially as a museum professional, is how we sought to honor the everyday. So can you tell us a little bit more about, when we’re talking about debunking myths that these happened every once in a while—from what I understand, you were in the thousands of these. Is that correct?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Yes, there are hundreds in Maryland, and there are over five hundred freedom suits in Washington D.C. and the courts in Washington. Some of the families are the same. They bring them in the next generation in Washington. But yes, there are thousands.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: If there are so many stories, then the idea that these were aberrations or these were blips in the matrix cannot be correct, right?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Right, right. One of the earlier views of freedom suits were that really historians saw them as idiosyncratic. They were just one blip, as you just mentioned, in the matrix. One event, self-contained, idiosyncratic, important in its own right but not really connected to anything else. And the more I looked at what was happening in Maryland and then what was happening in Washington D.C., what became visible was the concerted effort that these freedom suits represented. The concerted effort of families. And they were coordinated.
So rather than seeing them as idiosyncratic or singular in their unfolding, I gradually realized that they were connected. They were all part of a larger story of the freedom struggle and of the aftermath of the American Revolution and of the moral failure and the political failure to deal with human bondage in the United States from day one. There are freedom suits—I guess that’s probably the most significant point here. There are freedom suits in the United States from day one of the United States. And they continue through time to the Civil War, to the Thirteenth Amendment.
So rather than idiosyncratic, Omar, absolutely. That’s the view that I came to—was that these were far more coordinated and concerted and, therefore, significant.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: It’s important because when I do my research and I think about, from the moment of capture, the resistance involved. From the long march from their village to the coast, there’s resistance. To the time they enter the slave ships, there’s resistance. To the point of they willed themselves to death, some of them, because they did not want to continue, and they did not want to see what their fate would be once they arrived wherever they were going to arrive.
So this resistance is part of a continuum and part of the central part of human nature. I think it’s important for us to realize. Because sometimes it’s cast as people are being passive, and people were okay with it. And in some cases, the slaveholder was good to the enslaved. You build out all these false narratives, when people were resisting from day one.
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Right, there are so many mythologies around this. I think that was what we talked about a few days ago. These mythologies that surround the history of slavery. And one of them is that these freedom suits were singular or one-offs.
The other of passiveness—I don’t see that at all. These freedom suits are part of—Charles Mahoney I just mentioned. That’s a twelve-year litigation. And then it takes him—he negotiates for his freedom, obtains it, moves to Washington D.C., and twelve years later purchases his daughter from slavery and frees her. Manumits her. Emancipates her with a deed of manumission, registered at the courthouse in Washington D.C. It’s a twenty-four-year endeavor in his family to free himself through the law, which fails ultimately for him, then through negotiation, and then eventually his daughter.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: I want to read a certain section of the prologue that really struck me, and it was part of what we discussed earlier in preparation for today’s session. It says, “My pursuit of this history has been more than a scholar’s. My research uncovered a revelation for which I was unprepared. My grandmother’s family, the Ducketts, owned plantations neighboring White Marsh. One family member, Allen Bowie Duckett, had been appointed by Thomas Jefferson as an associate justice to the circuit court of the District of Columbia. I did not know that he got his start as a young lawyer defending the Jesuits against the freedom suits by the Queens. Nor did I know that his father was a judge from the Prince George’s County Court, and he presided on the day when more than twenty members of the Queen family won their freedom. It was one of the largest emancipations in a single courtroom that I found in the archival records of Maryland.”
I just can’t imagine what that must have felt like—what kind of emotions you experienced. You’re trying to be this quote-unquote objective scholar. You’re searching the archives. And you find this. Can you just talk us through those emotions?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Well, it was devastating and humbling and just something that I felt I needed to wrestle with in the book itself. And so, the book includes a whole series of chapters about my present-day research into these families and into my own family. And what really began as an academic study—a study of law, a study of freedom suits—I saw a kind of parallel file of my own family’s history in the midst of this study.
At the same time—well, so let me say this. You mentioned earlier about the time continuum, and the present and the past. What I felt emotionally in that moment of recognition of my family’s proximate connection to this story—I had thought it was some distant connection. They’re in Prince George’s County, okay. But this was far more proximate than I ever realized or imagined. And I think that what I experienced certainly in that moment of recognition—the closing of the past and the present. The past was no longer something 240 years away. It was right here with us. It is present with us. And the more I met with and talked with the living descendants today of the families who sued for freedom—the Queen family, the Mahoney family, the Shorter family, the Butler family, the Thomas family, and many others, the Duckett family—I realized certainly that the past, for these families, is present. It is a lived past. It’s an experienced past.
And I tried in this book to recognize that, to honor that, and to show why it is, in this country, we need to reckon with this history personally and more directly than we have. We’re obligated to know this history. We’re obligated to account for this history. And I think we need to acknowledge the way this history has shaped our present circumstances.
So those are what I felt both in the process of working on this and then how I tried to place it in the center of the story as well in this book.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Thank you for sharing that, being so vulnerable in this moment with us around those issues. Because my feeling is that this is the type of vulnerability and proximity, we need to achieve justice and reconciliation. It cannot happen without these types of conversations, and we need to stand on scholarship like yours. I just want to read you one of my favorite quotes from Baldwin, and I think it speaks to a lot of what I gain from you as a scholar.
He says, “I love America more than any other country in the world and exactly for this reason I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” How does that sentiment align or connect to the work that you’ve done?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: First of all, I think James Baldwin spoke about and recognized and brought in front of the American public in the 1960s the different historical realities that have shaped Black and white American understandings of history. And he held up this sort of difference in, in particular, his debate with William F. Buckley in 1965—this famous moment when the two debated. And Baldwin described these alternative perceptions, these alternative realities that Black America and White America at that time had about themselves and about the past. And I think we’re in a similar position today. There are lived realities—narratives—that have not been reconciled. And I think the United States narrative of itself—and this is partly what Baldwin is getting at—is curated. And it doesn’t include stories that it should. I think what I’m trying to do in this book is create a tableau of different stories that allow us, that help us, that prompt us to tell a different narrative of ourselves. A more inclusive, more whole, more full, more complete narrative of America.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: I 100 percent appreciate that. It’s so powerful, and it’s so relevant to all the things that we’re going through now and making sure that we’re connecting the history of the freedom suits to how it impacts us today. I think it’s really important.
I wanted to go to one of the questions that was posed by Joanie Floyd from the University of Maryland. She’s part of the 1856 Project over there. She says, “Can you tell us more about the freedom suit attorneys?” Speaking of continuums, she’s really interested in Francis Scott Key and to what extent his work was part of any anti-slavery effort. Or was it more self-serving for him in advancing his career? And I will just tack on to that if you could also mention about Gabriel Duvall. You know, but the audience may not know that Marietta House Museum, which is one of the museums that I work with, interprets that house that Gabriel Duvall once owned and where he held slaves but also was involved in these debates as well (as complicated as that may be). So, if you could help us un-complicate it a little bit.
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Okay. It won’t be easy to un-complicate because it’s complicated, right? But both Francis Scott Key and Gabriel Duvall are deeply involved in the freedom suits as lawyers who, for the most part, try cases for the enslaved families. They are the attorneys for the enslaved families. In fact, in Queen v. Hepburn, this very important Supreme Court case, Francis Scott Key argues the case before the Supreme Court for the Queens, and Gabriel Duvall is an associate justice on the Supreme Court and hears the case and issues this significant dissent, in which he says the right of liberty—of freedom—is more important than the right of property. So, his point was that in a case of someone’s freedom, that right is so critical that it trumps the right of property idea.
But Duvall more than any other attorney that I could find brought freedom suits for enslaved families. I think the last time I did a count it was something like 120 different freedom suits where he was the lawyer for the enslaved family. Francis Scott Key also was equally prolific over his career—something like 107 freedom suits. Those two far and away try more freedom cases for enslaved families than any other lawyers.
Now the difference is that Duvall’s representation of the families was all in the 1790s. In fact, all in the early 1790s. And Key’s lasts thirty or forty years. I think one of the things that’s hard to think about and address is the self-serving nature of these cases for Duvall and for Key.
The politics of slavery were not just national politics, though we tend to think of them that way. The politics of slavery were local and intense in this way, and Key—his career was wrapped up in his success in these freedom suits. And frankly, so was Duvall’s to a degree.
So, I think we can’t ignore the fact that both Key and Duvall and others had self-interested reasons for participating in the freedom suits that they do and when they do. For Key, it’s very much I think about his own self-image as a humanitarian—as someone who’s opposed to slavery generally on grounds of Christian perfectionism but who can’t reconcile with the problem of slavery in political terms in the United States. And his solution is the Colonization Society. Is the idea of recolonization—repatriation—of African Americans to a colony in Africa, which becomes Liberia. So, this whole movement to colonize is Key and others’ way of politically trying to solve something that they really can’t seem to resolve on principle in their own lives.
So, there’s a lot more to say about these attorneys, but they are self-interested. They do have something to gain here. And I think the slave families know full well that their attorneys are in this for certain reasons and not others.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: That’s important to highlight. I’m going to switch gears for a second because we speak about agency. I think we’re going to try to model it as much as we can. And we did pick a few of the questions from the Q&A but not all of them. So, I’m going to try to see if I can go in order and see how many we can get answered in the next few minutes.
So, Dr. Sims Burton—I guess this is a question, but it sounds like it’s a statement. He said, “Do you know that the descendants of the Queen family still live in Annapolis, Maryland?” And she said that she brought this case to their attention. But I didn’t know if you have any information about that.
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Yes. I’ve been meeting with descendants of the Queen family for several years and have continued to meet with descendants of the Queen family and the Mahoney family—actually, almost all of the families that we’re discussing. And so of course the sale by Georgetown of 272 men, women, and children from the Jesuit plantations in 1838 has created in the last several years not only a great deal of attention and news attention, but it’s also led to the development of several descendants’ associations of the families sold by Georgetown, including the Queens and the Mahoneys. Both in Louisiana and in Maryland. So yes, I have been deeply in contact with and part of those discussions.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: It makes me think about what you wrote about also in how one of the descendants of the Georgetown—Sandra Green Thomas. And you asked her about what does this mean for her family, and she said, “Theft.” It’s that powerful, and it’s one word, but it has an incredible generational impact. The trauma that has just continued to seep through every generation. And it impacts everyone. It certainly impacts very negatively descendants of the enslaved, but I think it impacts through morality—bringing in question the morality of our country in a very significant way.
So, we have the next question from Bad965. If there were a lot of freedom suits that slaves filed against those who owned them, why do you think that they are so rarely discussed in history classes? And then sort of just a second question here is, is the Hepburn family in the Queen v. Hepburn suit related to either of the Hepburn actors, Katherine or Audrey? Do you have information about that?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: On the second question about the Hepburns, I don’t know. I can’t speculate, and I don’t know. The Hepburn family that I’m writing about and that the Queens sued is the Hepburn family of Prince George’s County. There are several large slaveholder Hepburns of several generations in Prince George’s County.
As to the first question—I’m sorry. Omar, what was the first question again? Katherine Hepburn. I got thrown for a second.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: You had to answer the Hepburn question.
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Yeah, I did.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: If there were a lot of freedom suits at stake—
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Why do you think they’re not discussed in history classes?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Well, first of all, I would say that they will be because lots of American historians are writing about the importance of the freedom suits in Missouri, in Virginia, in Maryland and Washington D.C., and in Massachusetts as well. So, the freedom suits I think are beginning to be recognized as a significant part of the freedom struggle—what I call in the book the Public Underground Railroad. This is a means of attempting to free one’s family through the courts, through consistent pressure, and through litigation. And I think we’ll see American history textbooks begin to feature this part of American history, which really again I think has been defined solely by Dred Scott. And it is a terribly significant and awful Supreme Court decision. I do think that we’ll start to see this earlier history come into American history textbooks, and it should.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: That would be awesome, speaking as a former social studies high school teacher. I have one from I believe the name is Adeen Kalei. Her question is or his question is, “Were the trials or cases covered in newspapers?”
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: I wish that they had been. They were not covered in newspapers. I could find no evidence of freedom suits in Washington D.C. and in Maryland covered in the newspapers. That meant that the records I had to rely on were really court records: the depositions, the various appeals and decisions of the justices. And Francis Scott Key doesn’t write about these either. Well, we don’t have much from Francis Scott Key. His records are thin. But there are no letters in which Key talks about the freedom suits. He does talk about them later in public speeches, and those are ones in which he largely recants his participation in the freedom suits and disparages Black freedom. So, they’re fairly ugly speeches, and they’re late in the 1830s and early 1840s. But other than that, no. The newspapers don’t really cover these cases. I wish they had.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Yeah, that would’ve been powerful. A question from Alicia Chao. I know you’re focusing in on Maryland, but would you speak to the Robert Pleasants and Joseph Mayo manumissions in the 1780s in neighboring Virginia?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Yeah. Briefly, there were cases like the Pleasants case in Maryland too, cases in which slaveholders manumitted one or more. In the Pleasants case, there were I think over a hundred enslaved people who were emancipated by his will. And often, those wills were contested. Those manumissions were contested. And in fact, the film that we’re producing right now—the Bell film about the Bell family in Washington D.C. And thanks to the support of the Maryland Humanities for their support of this film. This is going to be an animated, feature-length live action film. Over forty actors are in this film. We’re reaching the final production stages of it. And it features a situation much like the one you’re asking about because Susan Armstead, a widow, refuses to recognize the deed that manumitted an enslaved family. And she contests this, she fights it through the courts, and it is really an example of the way many white slaveholders subverted the intentions of perhaps a dying declaration or a will or a manumission if it suited their interests. And so, it’s a difficult story to come to terms with, but it’s one that we really need to talk about in American history.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Absolutely. Tom Powers asks, “For Charles Mahoney to have traveled as much as he did, he must have had the permission of his ‘owner’. What role or role did the masters of these families play in supporting or opposing freedom suits?”
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: This is a great question. It’s also one of the hardest to answer because there’s not a lot of evidence one way or the other. Mahoney’s travels are important, I think. Undeniably important. In Mahoney’s case, the slaveholder is the Reverend John Ashton, the Jesuit priest, who as I discuss in the book, is having a falling out with the Jesuit Society. And really, the owners of all the families on the Jesuit plantations is something called the Corporation of Roman Catholic Clergymen of Maryland. It’s a corporation, essentially.
So, Mahoney may have had more maneuvering freedom to move around and actually travel to Washington. It’s also the case that Mahoney’s 1799 trial rendered him free. He was declared a free man by the Maryland court. And it was on appeal. And while it was on appeal, Mahoney and his family simply left the plantation at White Marsh. In fact, the Jesuits take out a runaway slave ad, arguing that until the court decides—the appeals court—he and his family should be enslaved. So, you can start to see just how hard it is to pin this down.
I do think, in answer to your question, that some slaveholders definitely attempted to intimidate, exact retribution on families who sued for freedom. I found one case in which a Maryland slaveholder, at the first whiff of a freedom suit—before it was actually filed—he sold the person to Havana, Cuba. I mean, cash out and eliminate the threat, and teach a lesson to any other enslaved people who might even think about filing a freedom suit.
So, I do think that it’s important to recognize the retribution that occurred and also the tension. These went on for years—these freedom suits. Three, four years of discovery—of sort of process—was not uncommon. So, yeah, there’s much more to say. Henry Clay, the presidential candidate, is featured in this book, and his sort of—I mean, he imprisons Charlotte Dupee as a consequence of the freedom suit, she filed against him. So, these forms of retribution and intimidation were significant.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: The fight for humanity is a marathon, not a sprint. Jim Hassmer, the Charlottesville area gleaning coordinator—he asks, “What geographical areas did suits for freedom occur?” And we’ve talked about Maryland and Virginia. Are there any other areas that you can speak to?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Well, all over the Atlantic world. Brazil, Cuba, New Orleans, St. Louis, Baltimore—anywhere there was slavery and a court, there were freedom suits.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: That reality is blowing my mind.
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Wow, that’s amazing. Julia says a few things on here. The first thing she says is Ben Duckett sold from Marietta to Z. Berry, Jr., of Concord. So, Zach Berry from Concord. Escaped to Philadelphia, sought assistance from William Stills and continued to Canada. A good example of a freedom seeker from Prince George’s County traveling through the Underground Railroad.
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Yes.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: So, I want to jump down to where she asks some questions. Did Gabriel Duvall likely opt to take freedom suits because he was building his business and knew the courts would pay him?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Yes. I think that’s a distinct possibility. It’s also true that some young lawyers starting out in the courts at the bar would take on cases of enslaved people—criminal cases. And this seems like charity, but it’s not. It’s practice. And I think that that’s something that I didn’t write directly about in the book, but I’m suspicious of the sort of learning to be a lawyer by taking on capital cases related to enslaved people. And learning to make arguments before the bar. So, I think there are a lot of things that are happening in that attorney-client sort of relationship. And I think the interest of the attorney is there, and it can’t be dismissed or simply ignored.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: I’m pretty sure this is Julia Rose, our director for Marietta House Museum, asking these great questions. And one more from her. Even though Gabriel Duvall defended and won freedom cases, is there evidence that he morally supported abolition?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: I don’t have—there’s no evidence one way or the other that I know of. His papers are sparse, as you know. And so, there’s not much to go on. Maybe something will emerge with Marietta House’s public programming. Maybe there will be something that emerges that sheds light on his views. But I think his strongest statement against slavery is his dissent in Queen v. Hepburn.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: I think that Julia and her staff are working hard on peeling back that onion as well. Tom Powers says, “You report many freedom suits across the country. Do you see a link to the earlier Clark Walker cases in Massachusetts, which occurred before the adoption of the Constitution? And did they in any way shape or form influence the freedom suits?”
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: I do. I think Clark Walker’s case is a good example of the power of these freedom suits to render slavery unlawful in a state before its constitution—it effectively renders slavery unlawful in Massachusetts. So, I think it’s a model for other freedom suits. And, yeah, it’s significant. Highly significant.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Now I just wanted to acknowledge really quickly we are over our hour time, but you guys are asking some stellar questions. And so, we have a little bit of leeway here, but I’m going to give Will some grace and allow him to give you some bullet points to some of these questions if he can. I know these are some big questions. But Janet Johnson asks, “Key’s relationship to Roger B. Taney, and how does that square with his representation of freedom cases?” How does that relationship jive?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Yeah, well, Key’s relationship to Roger B. Taney is that Taney is his brother-in-law. So, Taney is married to Key’s sister. And they appear actually together in one freedom suit: the suit by Joe Thompson, a blacksmith who worked at the Washington Navy Yard. And he sued for his freedom in 1817, and Roger Taney and Francis Scott Key are his attorneys. Roger Taney actually appeared in a few freedom suits. His wife, Anne Key Taney, gave testimony in a freedom suit in Virginia. But like Key, Taney is unable to reconcile his views about Black freedom—about Black personhood under the law—with the reality of freedom. And he determines in probably one of the most important freedom suits—one of only five that were successful in front of the Supreme Court (the case of James Ash)—Ash wins his freedom, but Taney is unable really to recognize the humanity, the personhood, and therefore the legal standing of Black people in America. And this is of course what he writes into the Dred Scott Decision.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Absolutely. We have a question that’s interesting. Is there a catalog of all the freedom suits in the US, where all the records are compiled and can be read and accessed?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: There is not. My colleagues and I are thinking about creating one, so it’s something that we’re talking about here at the University of Nebraska and collaboratively with other institutions—other universities and institutions in the United States—libraries.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: All right, so stay tuned.
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Yes.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Sherry asks, “Virginia legislators reacted to successful freedom suits by making it more difficult to gain legal assistance from abolitionists. Given the numbers of successful cases you found in Maryland, did Maryland lawmakers change their laws to make freedom suits more difficult to bring to court?”
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: They do. They do change in the law in 1796, and then in 1804 they just literally abolish the General Court of the Western Shore. That’s probably the most significant thing they do. Which the General Court of the Western Shore drew its juries from the entire Western Shore. So, Baltimore and western Maryland, where there was less slaveholding. Essentially, that court was abolished, and a large part of it had to do—I think—with the freedom suits and their success.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Wow. Have you made any connections—this is from Maya Davis—have you made any connections between any of the Irish indentured servants who are in the runaway advertisements of the Black families such as the Mahoneys, Queens, and Butlers?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: That’s a great question. I have not. I’d love to see research on that subject.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Joanna Hegel asks, “If an enslaved person won their suit, what kind of life was available to them in Maryland or D.C.?”
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Joanna, that’s a great question also. What kind of life was available to them? One of the things I think we have to realize is that the different between slavery and freedom was not as sharply defined as we might think. There was a kind of gradation of stages of freedom, stages of un-freedom. So, there were people who were enslaved. There were people who were enslaved for another two years because they had a contract with the slaveholder. There were people who were enslaved for another six months because of a provision in a will. And freedom often came with its own conditions. An enslaved person might be married to a person who won their freedom somehow in court. So, someone could win their freedom in court but be married to an enslaved person and therefore subject to the whim—the actions—of a slaveholder.
So, these gradations were wide, and individually and collectively the difference between freedom and slavery was less sharp than we might imagine. There was no neat end to un-freedom, either collectively or nationally, for that matter. Or individually.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: We’re going to make—we have two more here, and these two will be the last ones we’ll take. The first one is really more of a comment—a response—where we discussed this. This is from Martha Patricia Kirby. She says such a list or database would be a terrific digital humanities project in which to involved undergrads and pique their interest in this important history of freedom suits that aren’t yet included in history textbooks. So, you’ve got some more support, Will, on that project.
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Okay, thank you.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: And then we’re going to end with this last question from Alicia Tao. Would you talk about the 1835 Snow Riot, which was the attack on free Blacks in Washington D.C.?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Yes. Thanks for that question. It’s part of the film we’re producing, and it will be coming out in late 2021 and early 2022. And this film really is set in Washington D.C., and it begins with the Snow Riot. The strike at the Washington Navy Yard. A blacksmith at the Washington Navy Yard, Daniel Bell, who is featured in the book A Question of Freedom—Daniel Bell brings a lawsuit, and he attempts to free his wife Mary and their six children. And all of this is taking place in the midst of this race riot that unfolds in the streets of Washington D.C. and affects the course of his legal actions. And so, the Snow Riot was a seminal event in Washington D.C.—one of the earliest race riots in American history and one with great significance. So, thank you for the question. That’s vital.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Will, this has been an incredible conversation. It’s time for us to wrap up. So, thank you, Will, for your time and for your scholarship and just for your courage in writing this book and doing all the work that you’ve done. Certainly, at the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission we’re looking forward to continuing our relationship with you and bringing you over in September to participate in our Echoes of the Enslaved program. Everyone who is listening, please consider buying A Question of Freedom. I have my copy right here. So, you can buy it from your independent bookseller. There’s links that are in the chat that will allow you to make that purchase very easy. I believe the proceeds are going to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund?
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Yep. That’s right.
OMAR EATON-MARTINEZ: Great organization. So, you can also check out future virtual events from the Maryland and Virginia Humanities Councils at their websites, MDHumanities.org and VirginiaHumanities.org. I love being part of these types of collaborations, so kudos to both of those organizations. And again, Will, thank you.
WILLIAM G. THOMAS III: Thank you, Omar.