The untold story of ordinary black southerners’ litigation during the Jim Crow era

Litigating Across the Color Line

From OUP Blog by Melissa Milewski author of Litigating Across the Color Line: Civil Cases Between Black and White Southerners from the End of Slavery to Civil Rights:


In 1868 North Carolina, Henry Buie’s former master sought to take his mule away from him. Two states away, in 1870, the white owner of the land farmed by Georgia sharecropper Moses Summerlin tried to only pay him half the amount he was owed, and threatened to kill Summerlin if he pressed the matter. In 1907, Lurena Roebuck was deceived by a local white saloonkeeper who told her a deed transferred 20 acres of her Alabama land although it actually gave him possession of her full 80 acres. Three years later, in Kentucky, Rebecca Sallee fell into a large open hole that had been left on the street as she made her way to a church service. In 1926, the city of Atlanta passed an ordinance limiting the hours black-owned barbershops could operate and whose hair they could cut, damaging the profitability of Alonzo Herndon’s barbershop business. Finally, in 1944, in Virginia, a pregnant black woman named Ethel New was ordered to give up her seat on a bus and when she refused, was forcibly carried off the bus, leading to a miscarriage.

In response, all of these black men and women—and almost one thousand others across the US South between 1865 and 1950—litigated civil cases against white southerners. They would win the majority of these cases that eventually reached eight southern states’ highest courts. In the end, Henry Buie got his mule back, Moses Summerlin was paid for his crop, the transfer of Lurena Roebuck’s land was canceled, Rebecca Sallee was paid by the city for the loss of income she had incurred, and the city of Atlanta’s ordinance was invalidated. Of these cases, only Ethel New would fail to win her case.

Black southerners received vast injustice in criminal courts during this time. They had almost completely lost the vote by the beginning of the 20th century, and experienced widespread segregation. Southern courts, in turn, were dominated by white judges and white lawyers and had largely white juries by the turn of the century. Black litigants only won these cases against whites by negotiating a legal system in which those in power often had very different interests and perspectives than their own.

Read the rest of the article at OUP Blog

Categories: African American History, Legal History

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