|Date(s):||January 1, 1857 to January 1, 1863|
|Location(s):||Jefferson Parish, Louisiana|
|Tag(s):||court case, New Orleans, Louisiana, race, Racism, Jefferson Parish, whiteness, appearance, free woman of color, enslaved woman, John White, Jane Morrison, Alexina Morrison, white slave, blue-eyed slave, mulatto|
|Course:||“Human Trafficking: Yesterday and Today,” University of Richmond|
|Rating:||5 (3 votes)|
In January of 1857, a slave trader purchased an “enslaved” woman named Jane Morrison who was “of fair complexion, blue eyes, and flaxen hair.” After her escape, the next time he’d see her was in a Jefferson Parish courtoom where Alexina Morrison had filed suit against him. The suit declared that Alexina –not Jane— was white, mistakenly identified and mistakenly enslaved. In her petition, Alexina asked that she be declared legally white and awarded $10,000 ($270,000.00 in today’s money) for the wrong that John White had done by holding her as a slave. The following case, heard by three juries and two Supreme Courts, confronted interpretations of race in relation to slavery.
Both parties, Morrison and White, made claims about Morrison's ancestry but could offer no hard evidence besides judgments of Morrison’s outward appearance. In her testimony, Morrison said she had been born to and kidnapped from two white parents. In response, White provided the bill of sale from Morrison’s purchase, but it was deemed “illegal” due to its origin in Arkansas. Therefore, both parties were left to prove Morrison’s origin through her appearance and the “speculative” opinions of physicians and others. In his attempt to prove Morrison's "blackness," White pointed to facial features like her high cheekbones. This logic, as Morrison’s lawyers pointed out, made even the white men in the room seem like they had “black” features.
The jury was left to decide the difference between being white and performing whiteness: Is whiteness inherent through nature or acquired through circumstance? Merely the thought of this logic had the power to shatter several existing power dynamics of the antebellum South. Whiteness could no longer be the exclusive sphere of superiority for white people if black slaves could efficiently perform it. If whiteness could be easily attained –a skill rather than a birthright, the permeable barrier would fail to protect any non-slaveholder from slavery. Whiteness, synonymous to protection from slavery, was perpetuated by the outward appearance of white people –mainly their pale skin. Therefore, a threat to Morrison’s protection was a threat to the nonslaveholders’ whiteness and their own security. Morrison v White raised a question central to the race-based economy of the South: how much longer would pale skin protect nonslaveholders from being enslaved? By complicating perceived notions of race in this way, Morrison unraveled a history of categorization by race and finessed her way to freedom. Ultimately, the case of Alexina Morrison showed how in some instances one of the foundations of American slavery—race—was unstable enough to derail enslavement.