Challenging Inequality in America’s Civil Courts: African American Litigants in the Era of Jim Crow

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Friday, April 3, 2020, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Legal and Constitutional; Race


This panel will focus on African American interactions with civil courts during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

Historians have established that the legal system perpetuated racial inequality in America. The courts shored up slavery and racial segregation; provided a forum for racial identity to be clarified, articulated, and imposed; and enabled the criminalization of black men and women. Scholars have also focused on ways in which the courts played a part in ushering in rights related to race in cases such as Brown v. Board of Education. An emerging field of study, however, looks beyond legal issues that were explicitly about race—and, in doing so, complicates our understanding of race and the legal system in the United States. African Americans’ experiences in civil cases in southern courts are central to this project.

This panel, therefore, seeks to deepen our understanding of the courts by examining the limits and opportunities within civil courts for African American litigants during the era of Jim Crow. In particular, the panel challenges the idea of ‘the courts’ as spaces that only perpetuate inequality; as an institution that acted on, rather than interacted with, African Americans. It does so by focusing its attention on how African Americans created legal spaces for themselves within a system of oppression. This panel will tackle key questions, such as: how did African Americans familiarize themselves with the legal system? What strategies did they implement in the courtroom? How did they use the courtroom to improve their lives? How did their legal action affect their relationships with other white and black southerners? What was the role of black women in this litigation?

The panel will successively build on these questions. First, Hollie Pich’s paper will draw on her archival research in local courts in Memphis, Tennessee to discuss African Americans' legal knowledge, and how they prepared for court, including how they hired lawyers and tracked down witnesses. Second, Myisha Eatmon will use her research in personal injury cases to focus on the legal strategies implemented in the courtroom by black litigants. Finally, Melissa Milewski will examine African American women's strategies and experiences in civil suits that reached southern state appellate courts during the period of Jim Crow.

Rather than focusing on the litigation strategies of national organizations or the work of prominent litigators in federal courts, these papers will illustrate the legal action of African Americans in both local and state courts. By bringing together scholars at the vanguard of the new historiography on African Americans and the courts and examining the civil cases of ordinary people, this panel will help us re-conceptualize the role of the courts in black southerners’ lives and provide a window into different paths to equality for oppressed groups—not just for African Americans, but also for immigrants, the LGBTQI community, white women, and other women of color.

Papers Presented

Litigants and Liaisons: Black Civil Litigation and Legal Networking Under Jim Crow

This paper traces African Americans’ legal maneuvering inside civil courts in Jim Crow Mississippi. It argues that African Americans used areas of civil law, such as the common law of common carriers, including the principle of comportment, and cultural scripts such as respectability and vulnerability to convince white judges and jurors to award them damages. I show that blacks used specific areas of civil law to seek recourse for white violence, suing for negligence, civil assault, and wrongful death. Filing these civil suits seeking remedies for white violence allowed African Americans to circumvent hostile criminal courts, to pursue some semblance of justice. By petitioning civil courts for monetary damages, black plaintiffs asserted that black lives, black experiences, and black pain had value.  Scholars have overlooked the struggles of ordinary black people who filed suit because these litigants refused to tolerate white violence without compensation for their pain. As a result, we have an incomplete picture of black life and of black legal culture—how blacks defined, made, reimagined, and applied law on the ground. By highlighting black civil suits involving white violence, my work recovers a specific form of resistance to white violence that is as important as resistance represented by mass protests or landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Presented By
Myisha S. Eatmon, Northwestern University

African American Women's Civil Litigation in the Jim Crow South

This paper examines African American women's civil cases against other African Americans in southern state appellate courts from the end of the Civil War until the mid-twentieth century. It argues that black women used the courts to shape their relationships with family members and others in their communities and often subverted stereotypes in the courtroom. In particular, the paper shows how black female litigants used the law to protect their interests in disputes with community organizations and neighbors and to structure relationships with the men in their lives. Black women also often frequently presented themselves in these suits as economically and legally savvy, and at times as operating more capably in the economic sphere than the men in their lives. At the same time, the paper examines the limits black women faced in using the civil courts against other African Americans, including the use of stereotypes and gendered arguments against them.

Presented By
Melissa Lambert Milewski, University of Sussex

Streetcars, Segregation and Civil Suits: Black Litigants in Memphis’ Civil Courts

In the early twentieth century, the rate of personal injury cases skyrocketed in America. In Memphis, Tennessee, local circuit courts were flooded by suits against the local streetcar company. Months after challenging the constitutionality of racially segregated streetcars, black Memphians turned to the courts to demand equal treatment on segregated streetcars. They were overwhelmingly successful.

In this paper, I will examine how African Americans so swiftly adopted, and adapted to, this new legal framework. First, I detail how information sharing within black communities in Memphis enabled litigants to adapt to this new legal framework and bring suit. Second, I consider what accounts for the high rates of success enjoyed by black litigants, asking how race shaped—and did not shape—the experiences of men and women in local county courts across the South.

Recent scholarship on African Americans and the civil courts in the twentieth-century has focused, almost exclusively, on the appellate level. My work offers insight into how blacks understood and interacted with the courts in their daily lives. It also complicates our understanding of race and the law during racial segregation: while Plessy v Ferguson ushered in an era of racial segregation, it did not shutter all avenues for black legal action.

Presented By
Hollie Pich, University of Sydney

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Barbara Young Welke, University of Minnesota

Presenter: Myisha S. Eatmon, Northwestern University
Myisha S. Eatmon is a Chapel Hill, North Carolina native who earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and History from the University of Notre Dame. She earned her Master’s Degree in United States History in 2013, and is now a Doctoral Candidate in the History Department at Northwestern University. Her dissertation explores black legal culture in the face of racial violence under Jim Crow. Her interest in history, social justice, and the law dates back to her elementary years, when she was deeply moved by the lived experiences of victims of chattel slavery, the Holocaust, and Jim Crow. She has earned the American Historical Association’s Littleton-Griswold Research in Legal History Research Grant among other research grants to advance her research on black legal culture, civil law, and Jim Crow. She has also received the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship to complete her dissertation. Myisha is committed to the recovery of lost histories and voices, to the cultivation of historical and civic debate, and to civic engagement. She hopes her work will foster discussion inside and outside of the academy.

Presenter: Melissa Lambert Milewski, University of Sussex
Melissa Milewski earned her B.A. in U.S. History from Stanford University and her Ph.D. in U.S. History from New York University. After obtaining her Ph.D., she was a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences from 2011-2012 and then taught at Columbia University from the fall of 2012 to fall 2015. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Sussex in England.

Dr. Milewski's latest book, Litigating Across the Color Line: Civil Cases Between Black and White Southerners from the End of Slavery to Civil Rights, was published by Oxford University Press in October of 2017. Through an examination of more than 1300 civil cases involving black litigants from 1865 to 1950, she found that African Americans were surprisingly successful against white southerners in certain kinds of civil cases. Her book examines how black litigants in civil cases negotiated the system of Jim Crow and an almost all-white legal system in the US South.

Dr. Milewski is now working on a book examining the ways in which people of color used the courts in the 19th and 20th centuries to contest physical impositions on their bodies, including sexual violence and medical experimentation, as well as the ways in which medical expertise and testimony in the courtroom has been used to justify relations of power. Her project examines cases involving slavery, disability, eugenics, and sexual violence, and highlights the stories of individuals as well as the larger significance of these cases in key debates in American society.

Presenter: Hollie Pich, University of Sydney
Hollie Pich is a doctoral candidate in History at The University of Sydney (Australia). In her dissertation, “Building Black Memphis: Everyday Life in a Jim Crow City,” Hollie interrogates African American interactions with key urban institutions and organisations at the height of racial segregation. She is particularly interested in the intersections between race, gender, and legal institutions (especially the courts). Her research has been supported by the Australian Department of Education and Training, the Australian Federation of Graduate Women, The University of Sydney, and Memphis’ Graduate Association for African American History. In 2018 Hollie was a visiting postgraduate scholar Duke University, supported by an Endeavour Research Fellowship. In 2019, she is a Postgraduate Teaching Fellow at The University of Sydney. Hollie is the co-founder of ANZASA Online, the official blog of the Australian and New Zealand Studies Association.