- Gender and the Jubilee: Black Freedom and the Reconstruction of Citizenship in Civil War Missouri by Sharon Romeo
Gender and the Jubilee: Black Freedom and the Reconstruction of Citizenship in Civil War Missouri is an important work for understanding the transition from slavery to freedom as a process in which enslaved people legally, socially, politically, and economically reclaimed their bodies. While other scholars have previously explored this process, Sharon Romeo explores its gendered nature by focusing on black women who employed the military to assert their notions of freedom, citizenship, and nonslave identity in Missouri. Specifically, black women "chose to use the apparatus of the Union Army and [End Page 184] the strategy of claiming national inclusion to maneuver for a better life and to construct a civic existence" (p. 3). Romeo deftly examines how black women's daily acts of resistance and efforts in court not only ended slavery's hold and enabled women to claim freedom and citizenship but also led to the expansion of federal power. "The litigating slave women of antebellum St. Louis and the female activists of the Civil War period," Romeo argues, "left a rich legal heritage for postwar civil rights activists and set the stage for African American women to continue to play a critical role in their own liberation" (p. 10).
Romeo's concise work begins with an obligatory discussion of antebellum uses of legal systems and how civilian courts circumscribed the lives of enslaved and free black people. Romeo shows how the antebellum legal apparatus was designed to uphold slaveholders' rights rather than extend freedom, state citizenship, or dignity to African Americans. By accepting enslaved women's testimony against their enslavers, Romeo reveals the pivotal role that the First and Second Confiscation Acts played in opening new spaces and creating opportunities for black women to secure freedom for themselves and their families within the military legal system.
Black women actively participated in the military legal system. Romeo convincingly demonstrates in chapters 3 and 4 how these women secured protection, support, and employment from the United States military during the Civil War and military occupation. She closely reads the documents that litigating black women generated. These women chose freedom on their own, pressed the issue with military officials and Unionist owners, and contributed to ending the institution of slavery and its civilian legal apparatus. Provost marshals and other military officials took women's claims of abuse seriously, because they could hinder black men's enlistment, morale, and service. In this regard, black women employed moral claims of their family's service in order to participate in the military justice system rather than the civilian justice system.
Romeo reveals that 34 percent of outbound correspondence from the St. Louis District's provost marshal concerning civilian complaints between May 1864 and June 1865 involved African Americans, even though they represented 3.3 percent of St. Louis's population in 1864. She presents these complaints in several tables, demonstrating that black women made up a significant percentage of all complaints received. Moreover, black women's concerns primarily dealt with their children, wages, rentals, and assaults, whereas black men's complaints centered on assault, wages, theft, and enlistment. Compared with other groups, black women used the courts more often for enlistment issues, children, and wages. In short, black women's usage demonstrates how they circumvented civilian processes and simultaneously redefined their legal status as citizens through the military justice system.
Romeo concludes this compelling work with a discussion of how black women's activism did not end with emancipation. They employed both military and civilian courts to create new postwar identities that centered on their notions of family, citizenship, and marriage. Marital claims became essential for black women's efforts "to emancipate themselves from slaveholders, patriarchal authority, church authority, and state authority" (p. 98). Overall, Romeo's ability to recover black women's voices, actions, and resistance makes for...