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American Quarterly 53.3 (2001) 420-451
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Fixing the Color Line:
The Mulatto, Southern Courts, and Racial Identity
University of Alberta
In July 1857 Abby Guy sued for her freedom and that of her four children in an Arkansas court. The court records state that Abby Guy had been supporting herself and her children by farming and selling her own crops. The Guy family "passed as free persons": Abby's oldest daughter "boarded out" so that she could attend school, and the family "visited among white folks, and went to church, parties, etc.,--[such that one] should suppose they were white." 1 Following these accounts of where and how the Guys lived, the court required that the family be presented for physical inspection by the jury, which was to base its decision of whether Abby Guy and her children were black or white, slave or free, on their appearance as well as on any testimony offered: "Here the plaintiffs were personally presented in Court, and the judge informed the jury that they . . . should treat their . . . inspection of plaintiffs' persons as evidence." 2 Following their evidentiary "inspection" of the Guy family, the jury was told that the Guys had lived as "free persons" in Arkansas since 1844. In 1855 they moved to Louisiana where a Mr. Daniel "took possession of them as slaves" roughly two years later, claiming that Abby Guy "came with . . . [him] from Alabama to Arkansas" as his slave. 3 Witnesses for Daniel testified that Abby's mother, Polly, was said to have been "a shade darker than Abby," such that they "could not say whether Polly was of African or Indian extraction." 4 Determining Abby Guy's status and race solely according to her complexion and that of her mother was complicated by the fact that neither woman's complexion was considered white, nor could they be said to be of either African or Native American descent. Consequently, the nature and degree of Abby Guy's "otherness" as [End Page 420] focused through the lens of "blackness" became the issue in this case; investigating how black Abby Guy was, not how white or "Indian," became the first step in containing the threat she posed. A Dr. Newton was then called to testify on Abby Guy's behalf and, in an attempt to clarify racial distinctions, he cited additional bodily evidence: "[T]he hair never becomes straight until after the third descent from the negro. . . . The flat nose also remains observable for several descents." Daniel countered this testimony by introducing his father's will which "devised Abby as a 'negro girl slave' to his daughter . . . bill of sale . . . 1825, conveying to him, for . . . $400 . . . 'one negro girl named Abby, thirteen years old.'" 5 Testimony apparently ended here, and the judge then gave the jury the following instructions:
If the jury find . . . that the plaintiffs had less than one-fourth of negro blood in their veins, the jury should find them to be free persons upon that fact alone--it being prima facie evidence of freedom--unless defendant . . . had proven them to be slaves. . . . If . . . less than one-fourth negro, . . . . defendant can only prove them to be slaves, by proving . . . that . . . plaintiffs are descended from a slave on the mother's side, who was one-fourth negro or more. 6
The jury found in Abby Guy's favor, and the judge ordered that she and her children "be liberated."
However, Abby Guy's freedom did not go uncontested by Daniel; he appealed the verdict, and upon appeal Justice C.J. English reversed the initial decision. The basis for his reversal was the legislature's interpretation of the term mulatto in the Arkansas act regulating suits for freedom. He argued that rather than adhering to the act's definition of a mulatto as "a person . . . not full negro, but one who is one-fourth or more negro," the legislature had "manifestly used the word in a more latitudinous sense, . . . . they meant to embrace . . . persons belonging to the negro race, . . . . of an intermixture of white and negro blood, without...