Freedom Suits

In the freedom lawsuits initiated before the Civil War, enslaved people brought suit against enslavers, claiming they were entitled to their freedom. The legal basis for the freedom suits varied. Claims were usually based on the enslaved individual having descended from free ancestors or having been the resident of a free state or territory, a situation that could have nullified their enslavement. However, such suits also arose when a group of enslaved people believed their owner had freed them—usually in a will—and they filed suit to ensure the master’s heirs upheld the legal directive. Freedom suits were usually brought by men, but women also undertook such suits on their own behalf, as well as their children’s, given that the legal condition of slavery was inherited from the mother. Filing such suits could be regarded as a form of resistance to slavery.

Freedom suits were first undertaken in the original thirteen American colonies. It was understood that they were likely to fail, a reality that was made clear in the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857, but such efforts continued to be pursued right up until the Civil War. Only the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery in 1865 brought the practice to a halt, since there was no longer an issue to contest.

Arkansas was implicated in a number of freedom suits, given its status as a western addition to the union, added to the United States at a time when the debates over slavery were growing more pronounced and heated. Among the more important freedom suits related to Arkansas were Morrison v. White, Gary v. Stevenson, and Guy v. Daniel.

First among these was Morrison v. White, a case involving Jane Morrison, who claimed to be a white woman from Arkansas. The case, originating from a suit filed in Louisiana in October 1857, was complicated, but the central issue was whether Morrison—by all accounts, a blond-haired and blue-eyed girl who as a fifteen-year-old in 1857 was sold to James White of New Orleans, Louisiana—could be enslaved. Morrison, claiming to be a free white woman, based her claim on the fact that, as a white person, she could not be enslaved. It was an argument accepted by a Louisiana district court jury in 1862. In the end, it came down to a determination of her race, one that was based as much as anything on what she looked like and how she behaved, the factors at the heart of whether or not she was white. The case itself was emblematic of the divisions dominating the country, as well as the assumptions and stereotypes central to any discussion about race.

The controversy spread out over three separate trials, but ultimately, the courts determined she was white because she appeared white and behaved in a manner at the time regarded as befitting white people. Though there were witnesses who remembered Morrison as an enslaved young girl, there was no definitive documentation, and Morrison’s assertion she was white seemed to meet the common-sense standard of agreeing with what they saw with their own eyes. After an initial mistrial, a second effort yielded a unanimous verdict for Morrison, and while the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered a third trial, the 10–2 verdict in January 1862 gave her the freedom she had long sought, with a final appeal changing nothing.

In contrast, in Gary v. Stevenson it fell to the Arkansas Supreme Court to resolve a dispute between sixteen-year-old Thomas Gary and slaveowner Remson Stevenson in a case that, like Morrison v. White, was based as much on the question of racial identity as the issue of freedom.

In typical fashion, there were charges and countercharges related both to Gary’s racial identity and his parentage. Adding to this were allegations of promises of freedom when he reached adulthood. When it appeared that Gary’s father, who claimed Gary as his slave, would be ordered to emancipate him, the father tried to sell his son in order to avoid losing a slave without compensation. The young Gary soon escaped. However, in 1858, he filed suit seeking a formal declaration of his freedom, asserting that he was in fact white.

The trial took place in Arkansas, where the law defined a “negro” as an individual with one-sixteenth “African blood.” Two medical doctors testifying as expert witnesses declared that Gary had no “African blood,” while a third did not rule out the possibility but asserted that it was not more than the requisite one-sixteenth. The Arkansas Supreme Court not only ignored such “expert” testimony but instead tracked back to Gary’s disputed past, asserting that his mother was a slave, and therefore he could not be white. This decision came despite the fact that he claimed his mother was a free white woman, an assertion the justices ignored, instead basing their decision on the identity of another woman who they concluded was his mother and who had never contested her status as a slave. To further buttress their ruling, the Arkansas Supreme Court applied a version of the so-called “one-drop rule” to determine Gary’s racial status. The Arkansas Supreme Court applied the rule in both this instance as well as a later case, Guy v. Daniel. But the court applied it in its own way, ruling that Gary was not white simply because his presumed mother, Susan, was a slave, and that she could not be a slave if she were white. All of this meant that Thomas Gary could not be white. The tortured logic left Gary enslaved.

The final major Arkansas freedom suit, Guy v. Daniel, also centered its claim for freedom on the question of racial identity. The case had its roots in a suit filed in July 1855 in the Ashley County Circuit Court by Abby Guy against William Daniel, whom she claimed had illegally enslaved her and her children. Abby Guy asserted that she and her family were free white people, but after an initial jury found in her favor, Daniel appealed the case to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which refused ultimately to overturn the lower court’s verdict, but not before leaving over half a decade’s worth of suits and countersuits, all alternately supported and debunked by rafts of contradictory documentation and testimony. Looming over all the proceedings was the societal reality that not only was the Daniel family one of the largest slaveholding families in Ashley County, but William Daniel’s role as a justice of the peace and postmaster made him a powerful local figure.

In the end, despite these pressures and the fact that the jury may have, as the Arkansas Supreme Court observed, “found against the preponderance of evidence,” the state’s highest court refused to overturn the jury’s decision, citing its “reluctance to sanction the enslaving of persons” who were, by all appearances, not only white but also had lived as free whites for a number of years previously. With that decision, Abby Guy and her children were set free.

In the end, freedom suits in Arkansas and elsewhere represented one of the many paths undertaken by those who were enslaved and seeking, by whatever means they could, to escape from the situation that so clearly embodied the tragic gap between the nation’s promise and its reality.

For additional information:
Gross, Ariela J. “Litigating Whiteness: Trials of Racial Determination in the Nineteenth-Century South.” Yale Law Journal 108 (October 1998): 109–188.

———. What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Johnson, Walter. “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s.” Journal of American History 87 (June 2000): 13–38. Online at http://www.uvm.edu/~psearls/johnson.html (accessed December 9, 2021).

Jones, Kelly Houston. A Weary Land: Slavery on the Ground in Arkansas. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2021.

Shafer, Robert S. “White Persons Held to Racial Slavery in Antebellum Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 44 (Summer 1985): 134–155.

Stafford, L. Scott. “Slavery and the Arkansas Supreme Court.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Journal 19 (Spring 1997): 413–464. Online at https://lawrepository.ualr.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1729&context=lawreview (accessed December 9, 2021).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 01/11/2022