Archivist Jim Folts, who discovered the documents, told CNN it was the first time in history that a black woman successfully sued a white man for the freedom of a family member. This discovery uproots the history of slavery case law in New York and further explains that slavery was not only a problem in the South, but a tragedy that plagued enslaved families throughout the US.
Folts said the documents add to the vague details about Truth’s son in her autobiography. He said that she mentioned she was looking for a lawyer to free Peter from slavery, but the dates were inaccurate.
“When you’re dealing with this document, there’s something about being a part of this document,” New York State archivist Tom Ruller told CNN. “We can guarantee that DNA moves forward in time.”
Truth was “illiterate but very clever,” which brought Folts’ attention to such a seminal piece of history, crucial to understanding New York’s slavery jurisprudence.
“Capital of American Slavery”
Known as the “capital of American slavery” in the 18th century, New York was a major slave port for the Western world, according to Folts. He said Southerners often brought their slaves north to New York to trade in slaves and cash crops (sugar, cotton, and tobacco).
According to Graz College history professor Paul Finkelman, New York was not only the center of the Western slave trade, but also the center of the abolitionist movement to end slavery in the United States.
Finkelman, an expert on American slavery, said New York played a key role in state-level abolition of slavery well before the 1830s, at the height of abolitionism.
“When we think of the abolitionist movement, we don’t think of it until 1831,” he said.
Finkelman said that by the 19th century, northern states such as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York began to enact phasing-out laws, freeing thousands of black men, women, and children.
Under the Gradual Emancipation Act, New York freed all enslaved children born after 1799. Despite this law, many children were held by their mothers’ former masters as indentured servants and continued to be abused and neglected until adulthood. To continue enslaving these children, Finkelman says, slave owners often illegally sold their indentured servants south.
The case for freedom begins
Finkelman explains that Truth was a free woman in the 19th century, but her five children were not. Her youngest son, Peter, was an indentured servant to a white man in New York until he was illegally sold to the owner’s son-in-law in Alabama.
Truth, formerly known as Isabella Van Wagenen, then approached the New York abolitionists to bring her son back to New York. Finally contacting the proper attorney, Truth sued both Peter’s owner and the Albany Supreme Court for allowing the illegal sale of her son.
Documents from 1828 showed that the Alabama owner was prosecuted for the kidnapping, but he brought Peter back to avoid being charged. According to the protocol of the court, Peter returned to Truth beaten and severely offended. The documents also included a response from Peter’s owner in New York and a formal court order to free Peter from slavery.
“Stories need to be told”
“For anyone interested in American history… a discovery of this kind is kind of a wow factor,” Finkelman said.
These documents not only uproot the history of slavery case law in New York City, but also reveal the often hidden history of former enslaved people fighting for the freedom of their loved ones. Folts hopes these papers will encourage other scholars to find more stories like Truth’s.
“What hasn’t been explored are cases that were less legally important but more historically important,” Folts said.
Cases after Truth’s have appeared in many regions of the US. In 1846, Millie Swan demanded the release of her infant daughter Roxanne in Tennessee. The case turned into a complicated custody battle as Swan was 16 when Roxanne was born, making Swan an indentured servant under Tennessee law. Swan was granted freedom for her and her 14-month-old daughter after a Shelby County court reviewed her servitude. In the West, more children were kept in slavery and away from their families. In 1852, Robin and Polly Holmes filed a lawsuit against their former owner, who kept four of Holmes’ children as slaves in Oregon. Their owner granted Holmes his freedom under Oregon’s federal anti-slavery law in 1843, but kept the children as indentured servants. After a year of fighting the Oregon Supreme Court, the court finally ordered Holmes’ owner to return all the children.
Ruler said searching for other court documents helps others “understand where we came from to where we are today,” and he hopes scholars will examine more records relating to the long history of slavery case law in the future.
Toby Liles of CNN contributed to this report.