Dylan C. Penningroth, 41, a history professor at Northwestern University, has altered that notion with research showing that slaves established property ownership through extra-legal customs. Moreover, after the Civil War, the children and grandchildren of freed slaves managed to gain legal recognition in a system rigged against them.
For this ongoing, groundbreaking research, Penningroth has won a MacArthur Fellowship.
“In my first book, I wrote about a strange phenomenon: slaves who owned property in the South,” says Penningroth, referring to “The Claims of Kinfolk” (2003). “Slaves were property, and it's strange to think of them owning property.
“But if you look at records that were left behind after the Civil War, and even before the Civil War, you can see that black people managed to do it. And they managed to get millions of people and judges to recognize that they had property: corn and cows and things like that.
“In my current work, I'm looking at freed slaves' children and grandchildren, and how they managed to carve out space within the legal system to pursue their own interests. They took an incredibly oppressive legal system — this is the Jim Crow era, when (African-Americans) couldn't drink at the same drinking fountains as whites, when sheriffs looked the other way when people came to lynch them — and they found ways to use the law, rather than get used by the law.”
They did so, says Penningroth, by buying property and, in so doing, forcing the courts to acknowledge some fundamental rights.
“They worked themselves to death to get enough money to buy land, but once they buy land, they're in the legal system. They have deeds.”
Though at first glance this might seem like merely a historical curiosity, in fact it points to a people strategizing under oppressive circumstances and setting the stage for expanding their rights in the 20th century.
The heirs of freed slaves, says Penningroth, “used the law to build the independent black church. We think of the church as the seed of the civil rights movement, and it was that. But the church was also a legal institution. What's the difference between the independent black church of the 1960s or the 1890s or the black church of slavery? In slavery, black people didn't own the building; they didn't own the robes or hymnals. It was white people who owned that.
“When freedom comes, the law permits them to build this religious institution, which is so central to black history. At the same time, building the black church pulls them into the law.”
Penningroth has made his discoveries through painstaking research, unearthing court filings, governmental records and other documentation.
“By compiling evidence from vast and widely scattered archives,” notes the MacArthur Foundation in its citation, “Penningroth is painting a more vivid picture of relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, and illuminating the ways communities of slaves and their descendants recognized what belonged to whom.”
Penningroth says that the MacArthur grant will enable him to “think bigger” about his field of study, to take his time and “be more ambitious.”
But he hastens to add that the sources of his revelations — the records themselves — are in danger. State archives across the country, he says, “are under crazy budget pressure — staff laid off, no money for air conditioning (to preserve documents).
“I'm looking at this stuff, and this is our country's history, and it can slip away, if we don't pay attention to it.”