Kimberly Welch’s Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2018) has won the 2019 James Broussard First Book Prize. The prize committee, including Gregory Nobles (Chair), Ronald Johnson, and Cynthia Kierner, found that Welch’s diligence and intelligence are both very much on display in this exceptionally fine book. It takes us into new and largely unwritten territory, showing people of color, both enslaved and free, finding loopholes in an otherwise oppressive system and using the local courts very effectively to their advantage. As other scholars rightly expand our knowledge of the horrors and inhumanity of slavery, Welch underscores the necessity—by all people, particularly the oppressed—to understand and appreciate the law. We may all be aware of the unfairness and biases of the law as written by the privileged and powerful, but this book affirms in a very real and unpretentious way the importance of the American legal system as an important tool, albeit an imperfect one, for change and protection in our society. In that regard alone, this book will certainly have a significant impact in the historiography of slavery and freedom.
In addition to being well-grounded in theory and historiography, Welch’s book is clearly written and delightful to read. It is especially good at explaining the legal details about how courts and lawyers worked, but also uses engaging and revealing personal stories to address much broader issues, particularly the changing foundation of rights from property to race. Welch’s keen ability to show human faces in litigious processes makes this book a model for writing legal history.
Finally, one of the best stories Welch tells is about her own research for this project, an industrious and dogged search for sources. At a time when we so often turn to digitized material on our computers, Welch got her hands dirty digging up, sometimes literally, court records that had remained unused since the antebellum era, finding them and then rescuing them from decay, dirt, and mouse droppings.
Many thanks to the prize committee members for their hard work in selecting Welch’s book and in drafting this citation.