HISTORY

A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War

Yale Univ. Nov. 2020. 432p. ISBN 9780300234121. $35. HIST
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The literature of American slavery is filled with accounts of people who sought emancipation through escape and insurrection. Thomas (history, Univ. of Nebraska) demonstrates that many enslaved people were able to use the legal system to escape from bondage. Drawing heavily from court records in and around Prince George’s County, MD, Thomas closely follows the story of the Edward Queen and related families who built a successful record of freedom suits by demonstrating hereditary descent from a free ancestor. The author traces how the freedom suits led to changes in judicial procedure and new legislation that led to the gradual erosion of the legal rights of African Americans and their further dehumanization within the law. He also looks at the role of the Catholic Church as a corporate slave owner, arguing that the freedom suits were often a contributing factor in the decision by the church to sell enslaved people (the sale of 272 people by Georgetown University in 1838 is the most prominent example).
VERDICT This detailed and meticulously-researched account is an important contribution to the history of American slavery. Recommended primarily for readers interested in the legal history of slavery and in stories of enslaved people who directly challenged the legality of slavery in the United States.

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