|Tag(s):||African-Americans, Law, Migration/Transportation, Slavery|
|Course:||“Rise And Fall of the Slave South,” University of Virginia|
Harriet knew that when she turned twenty-seven years old, she was free. Harriet's mother, Phyllis, was the slave of Alexander Nelson. In his will, Nelson manumitted Phyllis at the age of thirty-five and all of her daughters at age twenty-seven. Phyllis died on the way to Liberia, but Harriet still wanted her chance at freedom. In 1857, however, Harriet was over twenty-seven years old and still had been not granted her freedom by Nelson's son, nor did she believe that he ever intended to restore her to her freedom unless compelled by legal process. Harriet decided to sue for her freedom, along with her brothers (who were manumitted at age thirty-one) and sisters.
Manumission, or a master setting his/her slaves free, was a fairly common practice in the early nineteenth century, when slavery was a burning moral and political issue. According to historian Lucille Griffith, many southerners wrestled with the immoral or uneconomical repercussions of slavery. One way that slave holders rectified their internal turmoil was by setting some of all of his/her slaves free in his/her will. Unfortunately, this act of goodwill required surviving members of the slave holder's family to carry out his/her wishes. In Harriet's case, the surviving member was unwilling. This stubbornness on the part of Nelson's son was not uncommon, but what is unusual about Harriet's case is that she had a case at all. As a slave, Harriet had no standing as a citizen and, therefore, technically had no standing to sue in Alabama. Nevertheless, she did and she was able to defy historian Ira Berlin's assertion that even when [slavery] cases did get into the legal system, slaves were denied standing in court, and any testimony contradicting that of white witnesses was not accepted. Why Harriet was an exception to the case is not known; what is known, however, is that it took courage and determination on Harriet's part to legally seek the freedom she had been granted.