On August 13, 1828, something extraordinary happened in Huntsville, Alabama. Eleven enslaved people petitioned the circuit court for their freedom.
We only know the names of the first ten: seven adults named Isabel, Daniel, Nancy, Peter, George, Lebadie, and Noah; and three children named Minerva, Sally, and Cornelius. A final unnamed child is mentioned several times throughout the petition and is represented with a large blank space.
Their combined petition existed in a strange legal limbo. They turned to the courts in a time before courts could certify manumission and in turn cast themselves upon the justice of a system that designed itself to offer none to them. During the Antebellum states framed their own laws regarding slavery. There existed little national standard beyond Tidewater colonial precedence and, because slavery in the United States rarely resembled the conditions of servitude found in Medieval and Early Modern England, occasionally an individual judge’s interpretation of Roman law. This lack of definition fostered a patchwork of vagaries and horror that stymied the efforts of many enslaved people who tried to navigate it.
The petitioners previously belonged to a man named Thomas Jones. He decreed in a will dated August 9, 1821, that all seven adults, “with their increase,” pass to his widow Rachel Jones. Thomas’s wishes were that after their “expected industry & obedience in the further service of his widow,” they would all become free upon her death. Thomas Jones fathered no children and left no debts, he could not conceive of anyone else laying claim to them.
For six more years they toiled. Finally, in 1827, Rachel Jones died. Tragically she also married a man named William M. Stamps sometime before her death. Prior to a wave of married women’s property laws that swept the United States during the 1840’s, all the property that a woman brought into a marriage passed to her husband. According to Alabama law William Stamps now owned them.
He wasted little time in trying to make money from their misfortune and hired out six of them to a man named David Monroe for a term of one year. On January 1, 1829, William Stamps would have been an abhorrent yet well-compensated man. However, he died in the early part of 1828. All eleven petitioners had managed to outlive three masters in the span of seven years with their community and families mostly intact.
William Stamps, like Thomas Jones, fathered no children and left behind no debts to satisfy with the sale of human skin. Yet he did have brothers. Elijah Stamps and Joshua Stamps became the administrators of his estate. The brothers claimed the profits from their labor for David Monroe and began to act as they owned them. The alarm fully sounded in the early summer of 1828, when Joshua Stamps unsuccessfully attempted to “run off & sell Daniel” but apparently found resistance or a lack of buyers.
Terrified that their collective hopes of a free future for themselves and their children might be “greatly embarrassed or wholly defeated” by the avarice of Joshua and Elijah, the petitioners reached out to a man named Robert Malone to serve as their next friend.
The next friend was a white man, or rarely an unmarried woman, who represented those who could not legally represent themselves; this included women seeking a divorce, children, and in the rare case of the petitioners, slaves. Fathers, friends, and unwed daughters all served as next friends in Antebellum Alabama divorce proceedings. Following this precedent, it makes sense to assume that Robert Malone was either an extremely close friend of Thomas Jones, in a relationship with one of the petitioners, or related to them.
Thus, they submitted their petition to the circuit court. They asked to be compensated for their additional time in bondage and to be taken into the protective custody of the sheriff or placed under the safekeeping of Robert Malone. Then they waited for the decision of an entity that could not legally free them.
The courts possessed little leeway in manumission cases until 1834. Although they petitioned a circuit court and not a county court, as specified in the 1834 legislation, the 1819 Constitution still required that the state legislature pass an individual act recognizing the manumission. Their attorneys made mention of this in the petition and it would have been fresh in the minds of any enslaved people near Huntsville, on January 9, 1828, the legislature had freed a man named John Robinson after people from across Madison county petitioned Senator Miller on his behalf. They would have known about Robinson’s manumission but the petitioners lacked the powerful voice that Robinson gained in a state senator. They ran the gambit that a court ruling might prompt legislative action.*
Judge Taylor issued an injunction on August 14, 1828, that prevented their removal from the county or their return from David Monroe to either Elijah or Joshua, until the Stamps brothers issued a $3,000 bond for their upkeep and good behavior. The sheriff delivered the injunctions and everyone waited for Taylor’s final decree in November.
On November 28, 1828, John M. Taylor, Fifth Circuit Court Judge, dismissed their case. They planned to appeal to Alabama Supreme Court but from the lack of a ruling it appears that court also sidestepped the issue.
The petitioners navigated the complexities of Alabama’s manumission laws and attempted to use the circuit courts to amplify their own voices in a time where access to that kind of power was beyond rare for the enslaved. In the coming years, manumission requests continued to pour into Tuscaloosa, and later Montgomery, from across the state. Six years after the petitioners attempted to secure their promised freedom the power of manumission was delegated to the lowest level of the courts. In 1837, in true regressive style, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in Trotter v. Blocker that manumissions made in a will or on a death bed were no longer valid.
It provided no comfort to Isabel, Daniel, Nancy, Peter, George, Lebadie, Noah, Minerva, Sally, Cornelius, or ___, but by turning to the courts and relying on last wills, they forecasted the next decade of changes in Alabama manumission laws.
*In 1831, Robinson would be granted a special privilege by the Huntsville City Council as the only free black excluded from a new city law prohibiting the hiring out of slaves by freedmen.
Isabel, Daniel, Nancy, Peter, George, Lebadie, Noah, Minerva, Sally, & Cornelius (People of Colour) vs. Elijah Stamps & Joshua Stamps, Book D, 266-268 (1828).
“1827 Acts, 145-157.” Alabama State Legislature. http://www.legislature.state.al.us/aliswww/history/acts_and_journals/1827/acts/Acts_145-157.html
“1827 Senate Journal, Dec 21.” Alabama State Legislature. http://www.legislature.state.al.us/aliswww/history/acts_and_journals/1827/senate-journal/Dec_21.html
Cox, Dwayne. “The Alabama Supreme Court on Slaves.” Auburn University Archives and Manuscripts Department. http://www.lib.auburn.edu/archive/aghy/slaves.htm
“Manumission By Last Will in Antebellum Alabama.” Auburn University Archives and Manuscripts Department. http://www.lib.auburn.edu/archive/aghy/manumission/manu-txt.htm
“Trotter v. Blocker”. Auburn University Archives and Manuscripts Department. http://www.lib.auburn.edu/archive/aghy/manumission/trotter.htm