A quarter century before Dred Scott’s petition to be free from slavery was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, a decision that further pushed the country toward civil war, a slave named Charlotte Dupuy asked a Washington, D.C. court to free her family from bondage.
Her owner was Henry Clay, the sitting secretary of state, a former speaker of the House of Representatives and aspiring presidential hopeful. Known widely as the “Great Compromiser,” Clay was just the latest in a series of high-profile, slaveholding Americans living in the nation’s capital sued by their slaves for their freedom.
“Slavery was challenged in court by enslaved people almost from Day 1 of the United States in 1789,” Thomas said. “The legitimacy of slavery is really framed by white slaveholders around the law that it’s legally legitimate. These show us enslaved people said ‘No, it’s not.’”
UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities have compiled and digitized court documents from more than 500 freedom suits and published them in an online database titled “O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law and Family,” through a grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The project focuses on slavery in the 1820s and 1830s, said project manager Kaci Nash, when African-Americans were held as property by a wide strata of Washington society.