One of the most shocking moments in "The Help," book and movie, is when the white heroine (Emma Stone) uncovers the state law list that dictates, in awful detail, just what "Negroes" of 1962 Mississippi are and aren't allowed to do.
Andrew Fede, a Bogota lawyer, has had a few shocks like that.
"Roadblocks to Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in the United States South" (Quid Pro LLC, New Orleans, 426 pages) is his new book – one of several he's written that focuses on how slavery, in 19th-century America, was codified into law.
Here is blatant racism and oppression, couched in the kind of bland legalese that Fede deals with every day in his own work. And to Fede, it's mind-boggling.
"You could put a mortgage on a person," he says. "You could use a person as collateral to borrow money. They could repossess your slave."
It's a subject that has haunted him for many years – first as a history major at Montclair State (he's now an adjunct professor there), and then as a law student at Rutgers Newark. "Every state, every colony had slaves as part of their legal institution," Fede says. "Even New Jersey did, until the Civil War. They were called 'apprentices,' under that statute. People were defined as property."
In 1992 he wrote his first book on the subject, "People Without Rights: An Interpretation of the Fundamentals of the Law of Slavery in the U.S. South." But his new volume, aimed at lawyers and non-lawyers alike, is more than just a look at arcane laws. It also traces the trajectory of enforcement, in the century leading up to the Civil War.
One of his discoveries is that the laws became more – not less – harsh with time. In particular, it became harder and harder for Southerners to free their slaves.
In 1799, George Washington could liberate his servants on his deathbed, with no one to challenge him. But by the 1850s, numerous statutes were in place to discourage slaveholders who were inclined to follow Washington's example. These are what Fede means by "roadblocks."
"One set of statutes required freed slaves to leave the state," Fede says. "Later, there were statutes that prohibited the freeing of any slaves – by the time of the Civil War that was a trend, and one state after the other fell in line. Finally, there was a series of laws that made it easy for free blacks who wanted to voluntarily enslave themselves."
Yes – incredible as it sounds, there seem to have been black freedmen who appealed, through the courts, to be re-enslaved.
Or is it so incredible? White Southerners deliberately made life so hard for free blacks in the pre-Civil War era that some may have chosen slavery over starvation. Such casualties could then be milked for propaganda purposes by the Southern press, to prove that African-Americans "really wanted" to be slaves.
"There were articles in the Southern press at the time, saying this shows these Northerners how little they know," Fede says.
Why study such arcane statutes now? Part of it stems from a love of the law, says Fede, who practices municipal law and general practice with the firm of Archer & Greiner, P.C. in Hackensack. It's important to be reminded that the law is a set of tools – and those tools can be wielded for bad just as easily as good.
"A lawyer might deal with wills all the time," he says. "But you would never think of a will bequeathing a person. Lawyers in those days were dealing with the distribution of other people, as if they were property. … It's very hard to understand. The best thing we can do is explain what happened."
"Roadblocks to Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in the United States South" is available in hardcover ($56.99), paperback ($38.99) or for download on Kindle ($9.99). For more, see quidprolaw.com.