A West Virginia University professor is receiving national support to research and write about 19th century court cases involving African American litigants.

WVU Department of History assistant professor Kimberly Welch has won a National Science Foundation Law and Social Sciences grant ($150,000) to support her research for an upcoming book.

She also has been awarded a year-long fellowship ($50,000) to support her project by the Newberry Library, funded by the Monticello College Foundation Fellowship for Women and the National Endowment for the Humanities; an American Academy of Arts and Sciences Fellowship ($35,000); and an NEH Summer Stipend Fellowship ($6,000).

Welch’s book, “Black Litigants: Rethinking Race and Power in the American South, 1820-1860,” is a historical and socio-legal study of free and enslaved African Americans’ use of the local courts in the antebellum American South.

Welch’s project investigates unpublished and rapidly deteriorating lower court records from the Natchez district of Mississippi and Louisiana between 1820 and 1860 in which free blacks and slaves sued whites and other African Americans.

“These are people who are not supposed to be in the legal record at all,” Welch said, “namely because they lack the legal standing to sue in court. What is more, this is a place where slavery was deeply entrenched and violently defended, and we don’t expect them to be able do this.”

“Southern lawmakers expended substantial effort to foreclose African Americans’ participation in the legal system,” Welch said. “They limited the political and legal rights of free people of color and denied enslaved men and women individual rights. Yet despite the limitations they faced, free blacks and slaves sued in court all the time.”

“I’ve found that African Americans sued whites and other blacks to enforce the terms of their contracts, recover unpaid debts, recuperate back wages, and claim damages for assault. They also sued in conflicts over cattle, land, slaves, and other property, for their freedom and for divorce, and to adjudicate a number of other disagreements,” Welch said.

Blacks not only sued whites (and other African Americans), but they often won these cases as well.

Research on this topic is difficult, however.

“That is part of the reason I think the NSF choose to fund the project,” said Welch. “None of the records are published or in any traditional archive. They are hidden away in the basements of local county courts. And they are rotting, falling apart, and handwritten, making them difficult to read and interpret. Working with them is like learning a new language.”

For more information on the grant or her book please contact Kimberly Welch by phone at 304.293.9302 or by email at Kimberly.Welch@mail.wvu.edu



CONTACT: Devon Copeland, Director of Communication and Marketing, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
304-293-6867, Devon.Copeland@mail.wvu.edu

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