Slave-related court cases collected in online archive

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

History professor Loren Schweninger at the University of North Carolina—Greensboro has spent eighteen years collecting data on slaves across fifteen states and the District of Columbia. This information is now available through a database offered on a website hosted by the University’s libraries. The database is called the Digital Library on American Slavery.

Schweninger and his associates put considerable time and effort into gathering this data. At present, the database includes 2,975 legislative petitions and approximately 14,512 county court petitions, only a sample of those available. The database includes over 1100 records from Georgia, obtained from the state archives. The University’s press release notes:

Building the database for the archive was painstaking work. Schweninger visited about 160 county courthouses in the South and 15 state archives between 1991 and 1995. “The first three years, I was on the road 540 days,” he said.

The database is organized for flexible searching; you can search by slave name, or browse subjects. The subject listing has breadth. One even is American Indians. The database is comprised of what are termed “Petition Analysis Records.” These are court records from across the South, generated when someone petitioned the court on some issue.

Here’s an example from a Jefferson County (Louisville, Georgia) court record from 1799 (PAR # 20679901). The abstract of the two-page petition is:

Reuben Beckum claims that he has been slandered by Frederick Evans, sustaining damages of $3,000. Beckum, who describes himself as a “good true honest and faithful citizen from the time of his nativity,” charges Evans with accusing him of being a rogue and a Negro, and of keeping a Negro in South Carolina to steal property. He asks the court to award compensation for the damage caused by the uttering and publishing of these “false feigned Scandalous, Malicious and approbrious english words.”

Fortunately, the database records the results of this name-calling court case—the petition was denied. One can’t help but think there’s much more to the friction between Evans and Beckum, but you’d have to dig into archival records yourself to find out!

Where to find it