A History of Black Excellence: The Black Women Who Won Reparations

Illustration for article titled A History of Black Excellence: The Black Women Who Won Reparations
Photo: Victoria Moussa (Shutterstock)

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on House Resolution 40. The legislative proposal establishes the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans, which examines “slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”

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While reparations recently became a popular topic in the national conversation, the struggle for holding America accountable for the injustices this country perpetrated against its Black citizens actually began before there was even a place called the “United States of America.” And as usual, Black women have led the way.

In 1898, Callie Guy House chartered the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, which still remains as the largest organized effort to seek compensation for the forced labor of slavery. Since then, history has been littered with stories of Black women who successfully demanded to be repaid for the labor, intelligence, time and freedom extorted from African Americans. Some of these cases didn’t just result in individual compensation, but in freedom and reparations for a larger population.

Here are some of their stories.

Jenny Was Not From the Block

When Betty Slew, a free white woman, gave birth to Jenny Slew in 1719, there was no question that Jenny was free. Even though Jenny’s father was a Black man who was more than likely a slave, established precedent dictated that a child’s legal status was determined by the birth mother.

But on Jan 29, 1762, John Whipple, an evil white man in Ipswich, Mass., decided Jenny was a slave. He didn’t buy her or argue her status. Whipple, “with force and arms took her held and kept her in servitude as a slave in his service and thus restrained her of her lawful liberty and did other injuries to the amount of £25,” according to the civil suit, Jenny Slew, Spinster, versus John Whipple Jr., Gentleman.

The court dismissed Jenny’s case because Whipple argued that Jenny was married, which meant she couldn’t legally call herself a “spinster” (under Massachusetts law, a woman had no legal identity apart from her husband). But Jenny refiled her case, informing a Salem, Mass., court she was married to an enslaved man. And, since the law prevented slaves from legally marrying, she was technically a “spinster.”

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Jenny Slew was the first enslaved person in America to be granted her freedom in a trial by jury. Not only did she win her freedom but the jury awarded her the cost of her previous trials and four pounds in damages. The judge declared that “This is a contest between liberty and property—both of great consequence, but liberty of most importance of the two.”

Wait...there’s more.

Jenny’s lawyer, Benjamin Kent, was an early abolitionist who was known for fighting on behalf of enslaved people in court. The reason historians know so much about Slew was that Kent’s best friend was in court every day and wrote about it in his diary. After the trial, Kent helped his bestie with a project and suggested he include a phrase that he used in Jenny’s trial. Kent’s friend was a pretty big deal.

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Some dude named John Adams.

When Adams finished his lil’ project, the Massachusetts Constitution (the world’s oldest still-functioning constitution), he included the phrase inspired by Jenny Slew. The phrase would be rewritten by Benjamin Franklin and used in another one of Adams’ projects: the Declaration of Independence

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That’s how a Black woman inspired this little phrase in the preamble to the Massachusetts Constitution known as the Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts:

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

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Does that sound familiar?

“Mum Bett”: The Mother of Freedom

There are some enslaved Africans, of whom it is said, “Can’t nobody own.”

Couldn’t nobody own Bett Freeman.

Born in 1742, Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman was known for not giving a damn. When Bett was still a young girl, Hanna Ashley, Bett’s cruel slave mistress, tried to hit Bett’s little sister with a heated shovel. Bett blocked the blow with her arm, scarring Bett for life. For the rest of her life, Bett would refused to cover the burn mark. When curious people asked about the scar, Bett would shrug, stare at Ashley and say: “Ask the Missus!”

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Betty was petty.

Bett’s master, Colonel John Ashley of Sheffield, Mass., was a well-respected, Yale-educated lawyer. One day, during a meeting in the Ashley home, Bett overheard her owner reading the newly ratified Massachusetts Constitution. One line stuck out in particular:

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

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Does that sound familiar?

She contacted Thomas Sedgwick, an abolitionist lawyer and, according to Sedgwick’s wife, explained: “I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, all men are created equal, and that every man has a right to freedom. I’m not a dumb critter; won’t the law give me my freedom?”

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Sedgwick filed a case in the Great Barrington Court of Common Pleas on behalf of Bett and Brom, another enslaved man. In August 1781, a jury emancipated the plaintiffs. Bett would change her name to Elizabeth, chucked the deuces to Ashley’s ass and spent the rest of her life working for Sedgwick.

Not only did Bett and Brom v. Ashley set the legal precedent that would emancipate every enslaved person in Massachusetts when slavery was effectively abolished in the state in 1783, but the decision also awarded Bett 30 shillings, the equivalent of $763 today.

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Belinda’s “Royall” Reparations

OK, I get it. Those previous cases were important. But should the proceeds from lawsuits be considered reparations? Maybe they’re just legally awarded damages.

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Belinda Royall Sutton has entered the chat.

Stolen by an “armed band of white men” from the place we now call Ghana, Belinda’s master, Isaac Royall, sided with Britain in the championship round of the American Revolution. After the war, he fled to Nova Scotia, figuring New England’s “patriots” might be mad at him (this was before Belichick took over the team). In 1783, 70-year-old Belinda petitioned the Massachusetts General court for a pension for Belinda and her daughter writing:

Fifty years her faithful hands have been compelled to ignoble servitude for the benefit of an Isaac Royall, until, as if Nations must be agitated, and the world convulsed for the preservation of the freedom which the Almighty Father intended for all the human Race, the present war was Commenced ...

The face of your Petitioner, is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumilated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.

WHEREFORE, casting herself at your feet if your honours, as to a body of men, formed for the extirpation of vassalage, for the reward of Virtue, and the just return of honest industry - she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the Estate of Colonel Royall, as will prevent her, and her more infirm daughter, from misery in the greatest extreme, and scatter comfort over the short and downward path of their lives.

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She won.

Belinda and her daughter were awarded the equivalent of $2,500 per year. But here’s the thing: The “Massachusetts General Court” wasn’t a judicial body. It was the name of the state’s legislative body.

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Another fascinating tidbit from Belinda’s case is that historians believe that Belinda couldn’t write. Most believe that beautiful prose from Belinda’s petition was written by the abolitionist, educator and founder of African American Freemasonry, Prince Hall.

Winny Wins Against the Whitesides’ White Side

The Whitesides didn’t even give Winny a last name. But around 1794, Phebe Whitesides and her unnamed husband (I hope his name was Wyatt) moved from Carolina to the Northwest Territory (currently Illinois) and brought their 12-year-old enslaved girl Winny with them. They lived there for three years before moving to the Missouri Territory, holding Winny as a slave for about 20 years.

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In 1818 Winny sued the Whitesides in the Missouri courts. But, instead of arguing her slave status, Winny charged the Whitesides with assault and battery and unlawful imprisonment for holding her against her will. She contended that, since slavery wasn’t allowed in the Missouri territory or the Northwest Territory, the moment she entered the territories, she became a free woman who was held against her will.

Winny was awarded damages of $167.50, or $4,102 in today’s dollars.

The Whitesides appealed, and the Supreme Court case Winny v. Whitesides eventually set the standard for courts around the country settling freedom petitions.

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Henrietta Was Once Released

There’s no need to beat around the bush. Henrietta Wood won the largest U.S. verdict specifically for reparations.

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Wood was born around 1818 and sold to a New Orleans man when she was a teenager. When Wood’s master returned to France, his wife brought Wood to Ohio and registered her as free. Wood found a job and went about her life as a free woman.

But in 1853, Josephine and Robert White, the daughter and son-in-law of Wood’s former master, hired a deputy sheriff to kidnap Wood and sell her. Wood sued for her freedom and lost because she couldn’t produce documents that proved she was freed. Wood was sold again and ended up on a Texas plantation. Wood remained enslaved until the end of the Civil War emancipated her.

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But Henrietta wouldn’t let Josephine and Robert’s bullshit go. In 1870, Wood filed suit against the deputy, asking for $20,000. The jury sided with her, awarding her $2,500 (about $67,000 today).

Wood used the money to pay for her husband’s education at Northwestern University Law School.

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Henrietta still wishes a motherfucker...

Too easy.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.

DISCUSSION

straightoutofpangaea
The Thugnificent Pangaean

Some of these cases didn’t just result in individual compensation, but in freedom and reparations for a larger population.

Here are some of their stories.

This is for the angry gray troll who skipped past the whole article to post BS.

*read the grays and drinks deep, the refreshing, salty goodness of white tears too angry and poorly read to understand*

Just like momma used to make.

*smacks lips*