The most difficult aspect of piecing together a history of slavery and black life in north Alabama during this time period is the lack of petitions by the very people we’re discussing. Instead of appearing as individuals before the courts, or indeed going before the courts on their own behalf; enslaved peoples and free people of color often appear for a fleeting moment as victims of violence, on a list of commodities, or afterthoughts in disputes between wealthy white folks. Sadly, the times force us not only to rely on these brief accounts but to also read between the lines and cross-reference as much as possible.*
Enslaved peoples only appeared a handful of times as victims of violent assault during the territorial period (1809-1819) and even then only when assaulted by someone other than their enslaver. It should be certain that far more attacks occurred than were prosecuted and that suits, most likely, originated when the assault deprived an enslaver of potential revenue; not simply for the sake of justice. Madison county only recorded three assaults on black men during the entirety of the territorial decade. The murder of Dennis in 1811, an 1812 assault by John Jones against a man named Abraham, and the 1813 shooting death of Daniel.
Of the three cases only the death of Daniel resulted in successful prosecution. The court chose not to sentence Randolph Rogers with murder, which would result in hanging, but instead defaulted to the lesser charge of manslaughter. Members of the jury held Rogers down so that he could “be immediately branded in open court on the left hand with the letter M.” Rogers paid a five hundred dollar fine, received six months in jail, and was additionally sentenced to spend two hours in the pillory.
A careful examination of these cases revealed little of the lives or habits of the men being ‘avenged’ and instead highlight the often lacking, yet sometimes swift, service of justice on the Alabama frontier.
Although black men suffered extreme acts of brutality at the hands of whites, the only instances from the territorial period that mentioned black women dealt with their further theft by neighboring whites. The best example is that of Beck. Originally enslaved by the territory’s attorney, Louis Winston, an 1812 case mentioned that William Blevins “seduced by the instigation of the devil,” kidnapped her and attempted to conceal her on his farm.
In territorial Alabama black men were murdered and black women stolen and that’s about the end of their appearances in court cases.
Surely representation by freemen made up for these horrendous oversights? Nope. When prosecuting free people of color, the scribes preferred not to record the details of their case. There are multiple instances in the record of the Mississippi Territory trying a free person, but in every instance they simply list the case as “The Territory v. Negro [insert first name]” and then moved on to other decisions.
It is a sad irony that the only direct petition by a black person to Madison county officials originated from the hiring out of an enslaved woman. In 1831, John Robinson appealed to the aldermen of Huntsville to exempt him from a recent ban on free blacks hiring slaves to work their farms. They granted his request and extended powers to the Mayor to exempt all other men in his position that the Mayor “deemed worthy.” His remained the solitary request.
The coming updates will be uneven in their representation of black life in Madison county as the reconstruction of that life will be done primarily through documents left by whites. Parsing ordinances designed to restrict the economic and bodily autonomy of an ethnic group does not carry the same emotional impact of individual stories. I will be forced to speak in broad, somewhat monolithic, terms. Though a wholehearted effort shall be made to untangle the documentary biases, and my own, from the historical truths. I will undoubtedly miss something important and for this I apologize. We’ll have to attempt to speak for a people otherwise omitted from the records. Their omission makes it worth attempting.
*even when we do have, non-autobiographical, orations by black people during this period the white authors preferred to rely on the use of stock phrases and stereotypes – like presenting the speech patterns of Sojourner Truth in a noticeably southern dialect (even though she was from New York and actually spoke Dutch as her first language) or having every other description of black women by black men end in the phrase “she do heap of work.”
The Territory v. John Jones, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 68/58-70/59 (1811).
The Territory v. Randolph Rogers, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 71/60-74/62 (1813).
The Territory v. Williams Blevins, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 50/44-51/44 (1812).
The Territory v. Negro Herbert, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 77/65 (probably 1812).
The Territory v. Negro Moses, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 77/65 (probably 1812).
“Huntsville City Aldermen Minutes I: 1828-1832,” p. 158.