By Giselle Rhoden, CNN
The New York State Archives has uncovered nearly 200-year-old court records detailing abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s battle for her enslaved son’s freedom.
Last month, archivists found the 1828 documents detailing Truth’s fight to free her youngest son, Peter, in New York. The documents included a complete court proceeding that followed the abolitionist’s case against her former owner and the Albany Supreme Court.
Archivist Jim Folts, who uncovered the documents, told CNN that this was the first time in history a Black woman successfully sued a White man for a family member’s freedom. This discovery uproots the history of slavery case law in New York and further explains that slavery was not an issue solely practiced in the South but a tragedy that plagued enslaved families in all regions of the US.
Folts said the documents fill in the vague details of Truth’s son in her autobiography. He said she mentioned her seeking legal counsel to release Peter from enslavement, but the dates were inaccurate.
“When you’re handling this document, there’s something about being a part of this document,” New York State Archivist Tom Ruller told CNN. “We are able to ensure that the DNA moves forward in time.”
Truth was “illiterate but very intelligent,” which is what drew Folts’s attention to such a prolific piece of history crucial to understanding slavery case law in New York.
‘The capital of American slavery’
Known as “the capital of American slavery” in the 18th century, New York was a major slave port for the western world, according to Folts. He said Southerners often brought their slaves north to New York to engage in slave and cash-crop (sugar, cotton, and tobacco) trading.
Not only was New York the center for the western slave trade, Gratz College history professor Paul Finkelman said, but the state was also a prime location for the abolitionist movement to end slavery in the US.
Finkelman, an expert on American slavery, said New York played a key role in abolishing slavery on a state level long before the 1830s, at the height of abolitionism.
“When we think of an abolitionist movement, we don’t think about it before 1831,” he said.
Finkelman said by the 19th century, northern states — like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York — began instituting gradual abolition laws, freeing thousands of Black men, women and children.
Under the Gradual Emancipation Act, New York freed all enslaved children born after 1799. Regardless of the act, many children were kept by their mothers’ former masters as indentured servants and still subjected to abuse and neglect until adulthood. To continue to enslave these children, slave owners would often illegally sell their indentured servants to the South, according to Finkelman.
The case for freedom begins
Finkelman explains that Truth was a free woman in the 19th century, but her five children were not. Her youngest son Peter was an indentured servant under a White man in New York until he was illegally sold to the owner’s son-in-law in Alabama.
Truth, formerly known as Isabella Van Wagenen, then reached out to New York abolitionists to bring her son back to New York. After finally seeking the proper legal counsel, Truth sued both Peter’s owner and the Albany Supreme Court for allowing the illegal sale of her son.
The 1828 documents revealed that the Alabama owner was prosecuted for kidnapping, but he returned Peter to avoid indictment. Peter returned to Truth beaten and severely abused, according to court records. The documents also included a response from Peter’s owner in New York and the official court order freeing Peter from enslavement.
‘The stories are there to be told’
“For anybody who is interested in American history … having this kind of discovery is kind of a wow factor,” Finkelman said.
Not only do these documents uproot the history of slavery case law in New York, but they also uncover an often hidden history of the former enslaved fighting for the freedom of their loved ones. Folts hopes these documents will encourage other scholars to find more stories like Truth’s.
“What hasn’t been studied is cases that were less legally important but more historically important,” Folts said.
Cases after Truth’s appeared in many regions across the United States. In 1846, Milly Swan filed for freedom of her infant daughter Roxana in Tennessee. The case became a complicated custody battle since Swan was 16 when Roxana was born, making Swan an indentured servant under Tennessee law. Swan was granted freedom for her and her 14-month-old daughter after the Shelby County Court reassessed her term of servitude.
More children were held under indentured servitude and away from their families in the West. In 1852, Robin and Polly Holmes filed a lawsuit against their former owner who kept Holmes’ four children enslaved in Oregon. Their owner had granted Holmes freedom following Oregon’s federal law banning slavery in 1843 but kept the children as indentured servants. After a year of battling the Oregon Supreme Court, the court finally ordered Holmes’ owner to return all the children.
Ruller said finding other court documents helps others “to understand where we got to where we are today,” and he hopes that scholars explore more records concerning the long history of slavery case law in the future.
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CNN’s Toby Lyles contributed to this report.