The Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks collection of petitions to Southern state legislatures and Southern county courts is a unique collection for the study of slavery. ProQuest, working with Professor Loren Schweninger, is honored to have digitized these records in its Slavery and the Law collection, part of ProQuest History Vault. Professor Schweninger spent 4 years traveling to 10 Southern states and the District of Columbia to collect a large selection of petitions that relate to race and slavery. In his collection efforts, Professor Schweninger established four major criteria for his selection of petitions:
1. Every major geographical region within each state is represented.
2. All accessible petitions written on behalf of or by slaves and on behalf of or by free blacks from the selected counties are included.
3. All accessible petitions written by slaveholding white women seeking divorce or alimony from the selected counties are included.
4. The guiding principle for the collection of all other county court petitions was to select, after a thorough canvass, documents that reflect and represent the scope of the county’s holdings.
The petitions that Professor Schweninger collected written by slaveholding white women seeking divorce or alimony are extremely frank and candid and offer numerous possibilities for research into the lives of 19th-century women, as well as into the institution of American slavery. In total, there are 758 petitions on the topic of divorce in Slavery and the Law.
To illustrate the type of documentation in Slavery and the Law, we have reproduced below five of the abstracts that are retrieved by a search on divorce:
Sixty-five-year-old Nancy Rowe seeks a divorce and alimony from Thomas Rowe, her husband of four months. She contends that said Thomas "drove your Oratrix from his residence and compelled her to seek a home, and the means of subsistence from the charity of her friends."
Nancy asserted that soon after said separation her husband petitioned for a divorce on the sole "ground of natural imbecility -- a charge which was well known...to be a most wicked, wanton untruth." Declaring that he "was seized & possessed of considerable property real and personal," the petitioner insists that "her said husband, in fraud of her rights, and to shield said property from being made liable to her support" conveyed away said property to his children from a previous marriage.
Nancy, therefore, prays that she be granted a divorce and that she be allowed "out of his Estate, such support and maintenance, as your Honor shall deem just & Equitable under all the circumstances." She also requests that the defendants be "injoined from selling said lands & negroes or disposing of the same in any way."
[Source: ProQuest History Vault, Slavery and the Law, Folder: 101086-012-0462, Date: Mar 22, 1838 - Mar 22, 1838, Found in: Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, Series II: Petitions to Southern County Courts, Part E: Arkansas (1824-1867), Missouri (1806-1860), Tennessee (1791-1867), and Texas (1832-1867)]
Fifty-nine-year-old Milly Perdue seeks a divorce from Isaiah Perdue, whom she married when she was quite young and to whom she "has born...a large family of children." Perdue maintains that for many years they lived together in peace and happiness, working "together side by side in the same field," and "that the property of which he is now possessed was procured to a considerable extent by the joint labour of your oratrix and her husband."
The petitioner laments, however, that his conduct toward her changed as "she became advanced in years." She cites that "he has of late years been insufferably abusive and violent in his treatment to her." She recounts that he has "beaten her with his fists, sticks and wagon whips in a most cruel and unfealing manner and has repeatedly threatened to kill her and do other severe bodily injury to her." In addition, he "frequently had illicit intercourse with a negro woman belonging to him and residing on the same place with your oratrix by whom he has had several children." Admitting that she has fled to the home of "a friend and relation," the petitioner prays for a divorce and sufficient "provision for her support."
[Source: ProQuest History Vault, Slavery and the Law, Folder: 016453-009-0603, Date: Jul 19, 1853 - Oct 31, 1855, Found in: Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, Series II: Petitions to Southern County Courts, Part C: Virginia (1775-1867) and Kentucky (1790-1864)]
Rebecca A. Spragins seeks a divorce from her husband, Dr. Leonidas D. Spragins. Citing that they were married "on the 2nd day of March 1858," Rebecca charges that his conduct "was such that she was compelled to leave him that his treatment to her was cruel and that she was under great apprehension of bodily hurt indeed she charges that her life was in great danger."
She further avows that her husband "was guilty of Adultery with one of his own slaves a negro girl named Lucy Ann and that "in fact the said Spragins boasted of his illicit intercourse with others and other negro women." The petitioner notes that the said Spragins "is the owner in fee simple of a valuable tract of land," comprised of some 900 acres and worth "at least ten thousand Dollars;" he also owns 18 slaves.
Fearful that he "will convert his property into money and remove the proceeds out of the Commonwealth" and that he will "take off his negroes and sell them," the petitioner prays "the court decree unto your oratrix a Divorce from the Bond of Matrimony from the said Spragins and make such division of the estate of the said Spragins as may [be] just and proper." She further requests that the sheriff "be required to take possession of the slaves aforesaid and hire them out till the further order of the Court."
[Source: ProQuest History Vault, Slavery and the Law, Folder: 016453-011-0340, Date: Apr 14, 1859 - Apr 30, 1859, Found in: Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, Series II: Petitions to Southern County Courts, Part C: Virginia (1775-1867) and Kentucky (1790-1864)]
Rachel Douglass Hudnall petitions for a separation in property from her husband, Thomas Hudnall. Rachel represents that, while still living in Mississippi in 1843, she traded her "rights of Dower" to a portion of her husband's land, which had been sold to one George L. Douglass, in exchange for George Douglass's "right title and interest" in fifteen of her husband's slaves.
Rachel and Thomas Hudnall have now moved to Louisiana and Thomas is deeply in debt. Because of his mismanagement of their property, Rachel's paraphernal property, which includes the fifteen slaves they have brought from Mississippi, is in jeopardy. Rachel, therefore, seeks to be separated in property from Thomas and to regain the administration of her own affairs. Related documents reveal that Rachel subsequently sought a separation from "bed and board" from Thomas on grounds of domestic cruelty and adultery with one of her slaves.
[Source: ProQuest History Vault, Slavery and the Law, Folder: 101693-012-0296, Date: Mar 22, 1844 - Apr 22, 1844, Found in: Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, Series II: Petitions to Southern County Courts, Part F: Louisiana (1795-1863)]
Sarah M. Mason seeks a divorce from her husband, Nathan Mason. The petitioner confesses "that not more than a twelve months had elapsed" before her husband "became insufferably abusive and violent to her, frequently beating and choking her, in a cruel and brutal manner."
She also "charges that her said husband has since her said marriage visited women of ill fame and had adulterous or illicit intercourse with them." The petitioner represents that she received six slaves and a tract of land as her dower property from a former husband and that her current husband "was at the time of their intermarriage entitled to no property of any consequence, of his own, and that the estate of which he is now possessed in her right would amount to about Fifteen Thousand Dollars."
Regarding "it as a duty which she owes to herself, and to the dignity of her sex...to sever the existing relation between them," Sarah Mason prays that the court will "grant a dissolution of said marriage" and will decree to her a "reasonable maintenance."
[Source: ProQuest History Vault, Slavery and the Law, Folder: 016453-011-0770, Date: Dec 11, 1863 - Oct 18, 1864, Found in: Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, Series II: Petitions to Southern County Courts, Part C: Virginia (1775-1867) and Kentucky (1790-1864)]
These five examples give an indication of the amazing documentation on divorce in Slavery and the Law. In fact, the richness of the petitions is indicated by Professor Schweninger’s analysis of the divorce petitions in his book entitled Families in Crisis in the Old South: Divorce, Slavery, and the Law (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) [also available in ProQuest Ebook Central].
For more on Slavery-related materials in History Vault, please see the brochure.
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