- Black Litigiousness and White AccountabilityFree Blacks and the Rhetoric of Reputation in the Antebellum Natchez District
In September 1822, Fanny, a free woman of color and former slave, appeared before the district court in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. She was suing Francois Gueho, an “evil-minded and disgraceful” white man, for libelous attacks on her reputation. Gueho, Fanny claimed, had “wickedly, willfully and maliciously slandered” her and “endangered her freedom by insisting that she is a slave.” In 1805, her owner had initiated “an act of emancipation” before Alexander Leblanc, the parish court judge, and Fanny had been living as a free person for some time, as those who knew her could attest. Indeed, Archibald Haralson, a successful Princeton-educated attorney from nearby West Feliciana Parish, assisted Fanny in her lawsuit against Gueho and corroborated her claims. She behaved respectably, acted “diligently,” “faithfully served” her former owner, and obeyed all “lawful commands.” Nonetheless, Gueho’s “acts of violence, threats and menaces” had jeopardized her reputation in the community, Fanny told the court, and caused others to question her free status. Gueho, she relayed, “intended to reduce her to slavery.” He was a powerful and influential man, the “president of the Parish of Pointe Coupee.” Without the court’s intervention and protection, he could “greatly injure her.” Fanny expected the court to hold him legally responsible for his assaults on her reputation. To that end, she requested he be summoned to court for a public accounting of his offenses against her. In addition, she asked the court to formally “adjudge” her a free woman and award her $5,000 for damages done to her reputation, plus “general relief.”1
We do not know what the court decided in Fanny’s case. Her petition and the sheriff’s return requiring Gueho to appear before the court are the only surviving documents. But we can conclude that not only did Fanny—a woman and a former slave—challenge a white man in a venue typically denied her, she also aired her complaint publicly and with Haralson’s endorsement. The court validated it by ordering Gueho to respond to Fanny’s charges, and the community watched. Moreover, Fanny’s lawsuit [End Page 372] indicates that she had achieved a certain degree of legal sophistication not usually attributed to an overwhelmingly illiterate people denied many legal rights. Fanny understood that she simply could not appear in court and expect to succeed without some help. She drew on a network of allies to aid her in her lawsuit, indicating that she had developed ties to local whites (including her lawyer) and activated those relationships when necessary. Finally, and, for the purposes of this essay, most importantly, Fanny took great care to cultivate her reputation in her community, and legal action against a white man was a crucial mechanism for defending her good name and protecting herself and her status as a free woman.
In recent years, scholars have paid increasing attention to various features of African Americans’ legal culture and engagements with the law.2 Much of the current historical scholarship investigating the relationship between subordinated people and the law in the nineteenth century examines the legal system from the bottom up. Rather than focusing on statutes and appellate court records as the conclusive expression of the law, scholars such as Laura Edwards, Ariela Gross, Hendrik Hartog, and Dylan Penningroth (to name but a few) have turned to the trial courts to emphasize how ordinary people (including free and enslaved African Americans, poor whites, women, the elderly, and children) participated in and shaped (directly and indirectly) legal processes in their communities.3 Indeed, in her path-breaking examination of law and governance in the post-Revolutionary Carolinas, Edwards argues that because local authorities worked to “keep the peace” and emphasized social order and community regulation over individual rights, everyone, including domestic dependents such as wives, slaves, and children, “participated in the identification of offenses, the resolution of conflicts, and the definition of the law.”4 Another trend in the scholarship on African Americans’ interactions with the legal system focuses on slaves’ lawsuits for freedom.5 Scholars such as Kelly Kennington use freedom...