tv Lectures in History Slaves Suing for Their Freedom CSPAN May 14, 2020 8:36am-9:53am EDT
william h. williams was one of the most notorious slave owners. he owned the yellow house. it was sometimes called a slave pen. we looked at one case, the film we checked out the other day, and that one was similar in that george miller's tavern was a slave. he is by the 17 and the single largest slaved jail on the city of washington and it's called the yellow house.
and james ash was taken there and held there and we'll see why in just a second in 1839. a few months later a man named solomon northrup was taken to the yellow house. he was the star of "12 years a slave." and solomon who was kidnapped and taken to be sold to louisiana and to the southeast, can he was taken to the yellow house after he was kidnapped, and he wrote about it this way. this is how he described the yellow house. the room was about 12 feet square. the walls solid masonry. the floor of heavy plank.
there was a small window with outside shutters securely fastenned. the room had the wooden bench on which i sat, an old fashioned dirty box stove, and besides these there was neither bed nor blanket nor anything. the yard extended rearward. in one part of the wall a strongly iron door opening into a narrow passage leading along one side of the house into the street. the doom of the man. and it went inwards to form an
open shed. underneath the roof -- the outside presented only the appearance of a quiet residence. a stranger looking at it would never have dreamed of it's uses. in plain sight of this same house, looking down from it's commanding height was the capital. those boasting on freedom, equality, and the rattling of the poor slaves chains almost co-mingle. a slave pen in the shadow of the capital. the yellow house here. we're going to look at where the
bells live here, a white slave holder family that the bells end up suing are here at this resident. the president's house on the map is just down pennsylvania avenue. where do we start? he was seized in a sudden sale, right? he was taken quickly and sent to the yellow house. williams planned to transport him and send him to louisiana. when we pull back and look at the broad scope, 1850 to 1860, a million and a half people sold
and sent into the south, the cotton south, the sugar fields. a million and a half people. 186,000 children. at least 260,000 arrested. every 3.6 minutes, a family was broken up and a person was sold for every 3. 6 minutes for 40 years. the scope is something that we have to reckon with and think about as americans and understand this forced migration. every 3.6 minutes for 40 years. ash was one taken and sold to
the yellow house, and it is there that he has somehow the resources, probably because he was a member of the bell family, and they're not far away, in 1839, he has the resources, the femme networks, to bring a freedom suit. which he does in december of 1839. so to understand what happens, how ash like northrup ends up in the yellow house, what set his freedom suit in motion? to understand the story of ash v. williams, he is taking on the largest most notorious slave trader in the city, right? this is -- understand we have to step back, it is complicated. it involves everyone in the bell family. james ash claimed his freedom on
the basis of an 1824 will. the will of maria greenfield. she had no children of her own. she had bequeathed all of her property. including enslaved people, including james ash, and including ann belle. she bequeathed all of them to her nephew gerrard greenfield. he is in tennessee, he has dozens of shehe is a large plan
and slave holder. i think you see it right here on the screen. it is the key to the whole case for ash provided he shall not carry them, her nephew, he shall not carry her out of the state of maryland or sell them to anyone. either of which events i will devise the said negros to be free for life. this will is clear, right? and it's the last statement in the will. this is important it turns out in the court case. it's the last thing, the final summation. he will not carry them out of
the state of maryland to tennessee, and hi will not sell them to anyone. the will was in 1824, ash is sold in 1839. so what happened in the intervening period and why is ash suddenly sold against the provisions of this will? first of all, for years, girard did not to violate the will. this will meant that girard had
to keep james ash, ann belle, and others under it's provisions in maryland. he could not sell them. so in this situation ann belle in particular moved to washington dc. lived on her own. she hired herself out. james ash was not able to do that. he was enslaved on a plantation in in prince george's county. probably hired out greenfield in tennessee. he hired james ash to work and he is taking all of the proceeds, of course.
that was the situation until the summer of 1835. 11 years after this will, there is a riot and a strike at the navy yard. there is chaos in the city of washington, and in that moment daniel belle, james ash's brother-in-law, he started a negotiation for the freedom of his wife mary and her six children. he was an enslaved black smith a navy yard. he worked here. there was about 13 enslaved ferns at the --
african-americans at the navy yard. one of his associates, a free black man named joseph thompson won his freedom in court. he filed a freedom suit. so daniel belle worked side by side with joseph thompson. but in the navy yard one of the foreman at the yard was a man named robert armstead. he lives her close to the navy yard, right? and he held marry and the six children. okay? a white man, a forman in the yard, not particularly wealthy his principal wealth, really,
was the six children, mary bell. and daniel clearly knew that they knew in the summer of 1725. we knew they signed a memorial. this was a thousand or more white men signed it, 90 white men at the navy yard signed this petition, this memorial. they should be abolished in the district of columbia. so they knew they put his name down on that memorial. he also knew that the three justices of the dc court.
everyone probably took note of that. but he knew one other thing, too. and that was that robe robert armstead was dieing. increasingly his health was failing and he left the navy yard. he could not work any longer. . daniel bell goes to armstead. ands to marry her and her six children. there is rye yott, chaos, but robert armstead signs and
notarizes the emancipation for mar mary bell and the six children. you see their names, this is the original deed for her and their children. this is a joyous moment. daniel belle is still enslaved. he appears to have negotiated for the freedom of his wife and children. two years later robert armstead died. okay? his widow, susan armstead begins
suit, based on the provisions of the will. okay? then we have a potential second track of a freedom suit stems from the armstead deed. the deed is good, the deed is valid, and it can't be overturned. maybe what ann bell will claim. the third track is living as a free american for more thperson years was de facto freedom. and maryland courts had potentially from 1824 to 1836, if she has been living as a free womg for more than ten years, she can file a freedom suit and claim for once and for all the
court -- the court might determine that she is free. we have three different path ways right? so after daniel belle gauches the deed, this is what sets everything in motion, including james ash's seizure in 1839. so this is a whole family but let's wrap our minds around it. . sorry, the deed, and she is in touch with the green fields. and she essentially tells them that daniel bell has been
manipulating robert armstead, her deceased husband, and that daniel bell needs to be dealt with. and the first step that she takes in order to possibly make this deed of emancipation, you know, unfounded, unsound, is to attempt to sell daniel. get daniel out of the picture. so he is sold, we think, by the greenfields. there seems to be a connection there. the minute the word gets out of this deed, it comes full kirkle and his slave holder sells him.
everybody with me on that? okay. this was a dramatic moment. in september of 1835, daniel bell is seized on the navy yard. he is at the black smith shop and slave traders, these are not policem policemen. people like that they rush the black smith shop. four or five of them, and they take down daniel bell. down to the ground. and they haul him off of the floor. the shop floor.
so in september of 1845 daniel bell is seized. he is about to be sold so what does he do? of course, he sues for his freedom. his trial discuss not take place because there is a friend of his, a marine colonel, and he helps daniel bell buy his freedom. so daniel bell negotiates for his freedom in that very moment and he pays over $1,000. this is two years wages. think about that in today's terms. two years full wages to buy his freedom. well the bell family recognized that susan armstead is not going
to let go. daniel's sister and bell files her petition. she claimed she was running as a free woman. he just drags on for years. here is what we need to know, right? although ann bell had been living as a free woman with lucy bell, her mother, and now daniel bell bought his freedom, right? and probably this deed with mary and the children liberating them, the fact of the matter was that the greenfields has been quietly bequeathing them to
others all along. they are passing along the paper from one green fiefield to anot and the precariousness was that ann bell too could be seized like her brother. and summarily sold before she could get a freedom suit in play, but more particularly so could her children. so could her children. the terms of that will were for her, not for her children. girard greenfield could possibly attempt to sell the children.
no word r in the green field family, susan armstel in a month of that began trying to maneuver to overturn the deed of emancipation. we have daniel and mary bell over here, and we have james ash, okay? susan armstead continues this whole time trying to hire out mary and the children. she is hiring them out, mary is claiming her freedom, she gets a freedom certificate and it is probably the case that mary bell
tried to negotiate with susan armstead, right? probably. but susan armstead would not budge. we're not sure of the timing or how it was coordinated, but in 1839 as ann belle has stalled in the courts, girard decides to sell james ash. a sudden sale, if he can execute the sale maybe he can get around the provisions in that 1824 will. so in 1839, in december, just like daniel belle, james ash is seized, taken to the yellow house, and sold to the south.
he is being held there and james ash files his freedom suit, and the decision is a precursor for dread scott. so what does ash argue and what was williams argue and what does tawny decide? ash argued that the will, the terms of the will, had to be follow followed. there is an old principal involved. and that was ash's position. the intent of the will is that if he were sold he should be free. washington dc, in the jury
trial, the jury agreed and awarded ash his freedom. a month later ann bell wins her freedom suit. now he has won his freedom suit on the basis of the will and ann belle wins her freedom suit on the basis of having lived for ten years. she was also involved in the will. in washington dc, the judges, they instructed the jury, ann belle purchased property in the city. she bought property. she built a house. she made contracts. she bought property in the city, she built a house and made
contracts. she even hired an enslaved person from the greenfields. so she had a contract with the green fie greenfields. can an enslaved person make contracts? this is of course the issue and the judges said that these acts are "inconsistent" with the condition of slavery. the jury could infer that ann bell was free. so james ash won his case. williams appeals to the supreme court. now this case raises a vital question, doesn't it? it is now before the supreme court, and it comes to the court in 1843.
and it raises this vital question of whether an enslaved person can get a will, if an enslaved person under the law -- it would be hard to argue they could. if an enslaved salesperson under the law, it poses this question, whether or not slaves are property under the law or human beings. now not surprisingly the slave traders take the most unam biggous person possible. his argument is the following "negros by the laws of maryland are part of household effects.
he defended an abolitionist in a very, very controversial trial. a high profile looibl -- liable case in 1835. and they made the argument that enslaved people are human beings, of course. he positions this around human rights. and he, too, cites queen b he b hepburn. bradley also made the argument at trial "although they are personal property, yet they are
also recognized as persons, and are so called in the cushion constitution of the united states and are capable of receiving a bequest of freedom." so ash's argument is tied to the constitutional question her about are enslaved people persons under the means of the constitution. and what does that mean? now it may surprise you that roger b tawny upheld ash's freedom in this case. ash received a stunning victory,
didn't he? he is only a handful of freedom suits to be affirmed and tawny renders an opinion that is meant to keep the property rights of slave holders protected. ash takes on the yellow house, william h. williams, he wins freedom at trial and had t is p held at the supreme court level. ash's freedom, and he says this without a hint of irony, right? took effect the moment he was
sold. the moment he is sold, he is free, but what is he really saying? on the one hand what twauny does is recognize the pointed one way, and the principals of the intent of the will pointed another way, right? one is about the constitutional property rights and how they take effect in the united states and the other is a private civil matter but none the less extremely important in the law for how wills are administered, right?
he doesn't want to do anything that would affirm the idea that ash presented that african-american were rights bering persons. he wasn't going to do that. so what does he do? he creates a legal fiction, i think, and that is this. that there are three people involved in this will. there are three people. the one that writes the will, right? james ash, the enslaved property who has no rights in tawny's view and is simply a piece of property. he accepts the argument that the slave traders attorneys make,
right? right there. and there is james ash in the same body, a latent free man. this sort of thinking, this sort of magic trick in a way, an even ma'amic -- magic trick is meant to make it possible, the property rights were not violated here. ash's freedom takes effect the moment he was sold because there was three beings in this transaction. so let me pause. do we have any questions at the moment?
yeah, lauren? >> okay, this is a great question, what happens to mary bell. ash won his freedom at the supreme court level. ann bell won her freedom at the circuit court level. so large parts of the bell family are free, right? louisy bell there is a deed of manumission. there is still an unclear state. she ends up sues for her freedom in 1844 to try to clarify. she knows that susan armstead is
trying to overturn the deed and she sues for freedom in the court to clarify they have received a secertificate saying she is a free woman, and it is still americay, still not a sure thing, right? and so she sues for her freedom. in part she hears through the grapevine that susan armstead is about to sell one of her children, okay? but in 1847 in december, mary bell's lawsuit, to win that case, and the jury finds that
robert armstead was not of sound mind and the deed is overturned. >> now at this moment, desperate, daniel bell organizes an escape for mary and the children. he helps bring it to washington dc. he wroites a series of letters, but he is the driving force behind what is the largest slave escape attempt in american history on the pearl. a ship, a vessel, that he helps set in motion to bring from
philadelphia to washington dc. and in april 77 enslaved people get on the pearl on a dark night and it sails out of washington dc. and by that time, a steamer had caught up with the paroearl. the vessel is boarded and captured and all of the 77 people and the white crew from philadelphia are taken back to washington dc. the crew is, and the captain, are put on trial for leading a slave insurrection and mary and
the children along with many others on board are sold, essentially. here is the list of the pearl. you see mary here, mrs. arminstear armstead. mary with two children. harriett, and this little scriple is navy yard right here. the slave holders whose -- the people who attempted to us caes right? the slaveholders of those people really effectively want today send a message to the enslaved across washington dc and maryland that they want today teach the enslaved a lesson not to run away or to escape. so they would be sold.
they were sold south really as a deterrent. and marry, and most of the children, were taken to baltimore for sale to be sold. this is the scene you just saw in the short film, right? they were taken from the b&o railroad station to baltimore. so he is desperate to intervene. daniel on the platform is bludgeoned by the train conducto conductors, the train pulls away, and some abolitionists saw this and helped daniel
intervene. so what happens is that eventually with help from some abolitionis abolitionists, he is able to raise $400 and purchase mary bell's freedom, but he only has enough money to purchase two of the children. okay? so daniel and mary bell have to decide which two children will be saved and kept. and which three or four children will be gone and sold. and they -- they do that. after the civil war some of the children are able to reunite with mary and daniel bell.
we don't know what happens to them. we don't know. but they are sold. and they are taken away. at age eight, nine, ten. so daniel, just like he purchased his own freedom, has to purchase mary's freedom. ann bell wins her free, and this is what happens to mary bell. and in fact, you see how there were 11 bells. the largest family group on the pearl were the bell family. there was 11 of them. and this is the court document valuing them for susanna armstead. one final comment on that, there is one final lawsuit that ellen
norabell brings against susan armstead, and just to be clear, she is eight years old, okay? so the last lawsuit she sues susan armstead. she is the one not sold, okay? and eleanor bell, that suit, there are dozens of witnesses, it is a big, big deal in washington dc in 1851. and they find the same result, that robert was not of sound mind and the deed of manumission is not valid.
and eleanora bell is not liberated until 1862 in the civil war, okay? great question. yeah. let's turn finally and step back as we wrap up here and think about the significance of freedom suits broadly as an avenue of antislavery constitutionalism. so when we step back and think about what we learned today, what the story of james ash tells us, daniel bell, ann bell. what are the sources of anti-slavery constitutionalism. one source that scholars have looked at one dimension, is the
lawyers like joseph bradley. lawyers that to be sure helped enslaved families bring these cases, and made arguments that were not antislavery and were aimed at laying down a track of argument that slavery is not guaranteed by the constitution. that ist is circumscribed. there is no doubt about that. they are getting that anti-slavery constitutionalism in the record. another is certainly the decenting opinions, right? we mentioned it, and we could
also about john mcclain's. his dissent is really a dissent like duvals about freedom and that slavery is not sanctions in the constitution. okay? third, and this is so important, it is of crazy yul importance in my view. third back abolition cysts. they break with the garisonians, and they move that the constitution is a freedom document, and douglas becomes a principal voice of the anti-slavery constitutionalism.
he is saying that blacks are suicides, but fourth and most important, but it is the freedom suits, okay? the enslaved families themselves that brought the families most of all laid down the serious of arguments that the constitution was not pro slavery. that it did not create a slavery based national system, but instead won on freedom. and we think about james ash, ann bell, eleanora bell. the long line of freedom suits arguing that freedom was national and slavery was local. freedom was national and slavery was confined to certain places, con stingencie
contingencies, certain law, certain conditions. and in dread scott's case, chief justice roger tawny tries to displace that entire line of arguments, right? entirely. entirely. in his view, property rights of slave owners are national and freedom is local or confined but slavery is ubiquitous in tawney's opinion, which you read and know well. so in sum, these enslaved families who bring the freedom suits from 1800 or 1790s all the way up to 1860 articulate the longest most sustained argument based around anti-slavery
constitutionalism. and so next, we'll see how the civil war transformed this constitution and thank you, and see you next week. enjoy your weekend. the house rules committee meets today to consider debate rule rules for the $3 trillion coronavirus economic aid package, scheduled to come to the house floor friday. committee members will also consider a resolution authorizing remote voting by proxy, as well as remote committee proceedings. live coverage begins at 11:00 a.m. eastern on c-span3,
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