Thomas’ research to uncover, digitize African American family trees

A project led by UNL historian William G. Thomas seeks to uncover court files concerning an early 19th century Maryland slave who petitioned the U.S. Circuit Court in Washington, D.C., for her and her daughter’s freedom.

In the early 19th century, a Maryland slave petitioned the U.S. Circuit Court in Washington, D.C., for her and her daughter’s freedom based on her purported lineage from a free woman. Francis Scott Key was her lawyer, and appeared before William Cranch, a powerful district judge whose decisions sent repercussions across the early United States.

The story of Mima Queen, her family and their fight for freedom has all the drama, significance, and fabled forebears to give it historical prominence. Yet the case files, and the stories they tell, have been hidden away among the stacks of the National Archives.

A project led by UNL historian William G. Thomas seeks to uncover these court files, and with them their observations of a young United States, Washington’s social circles and perhaps, most notably, the family trees of enslaved and free blacks.

The Early Washington, D.C., Law and Family Project has been building for years. Now it’s ready to go full speed ahead thanks to a two-year, $200,000 Collaborative Research Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which begins this month.

Thomas, chair of the Department of History and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities and professor of history, is the principal investigator on the project. He’s partnering with researchers at the University of Maryland to find and digitize court some 4,000 case files from 1800 to 1820. Scholars will analyze the files to study social and family networks of both blacks and whites in early Washington.

One family network that Thomas will be researching thoroughly is the Queen family and its petitions for freedom. The case of Mima Queen is significant in American history, he said, because of the people involved and because it set several precedents for slaves petitioning the courts for freedom.

“The case goes all the way to the Supreme Court, and was one of the earliest petitions to go to the court,” Thomas said. “That happened in 1813, but her petition for freedom was denied.

“In a way, I think, it sets in place an understanding that slavery is presumed for people of color and freedom is not petitionable. It’s very difficult to succeed in a petition for freedom after this case. But families don't stop trying.”

The case also laid the foundation for the rule of hearsay in American courts, disallowing any testimony where the witness does not have direct knowledge of the facts but was told them by someone else. Hearsay evidence or "out of court" statements in freedom petitions had been allowed in many earlier cases in Maryland, in large part because the stakes in these cases — freedom or enslavement — were so high.

The Queen case turned on the status of her ancestor, as described by witnesses who were not alive at that time but heard stories about her from others. It is these family networks that Thomas wants to uncover and document in the petitions and case files.

The NEH grant will allow the professor and his fellow scholars to create a digital archive of the D.C. court case files, present the information through webinars and publish several journal articles based on the findings. Thomas is working with UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.

Thomas said he is writing a narrative history of the Queen case and the families involved, using the case as a window on the problem of slavery from the American Revolution to the Civil War.

Descendants of American slaves may feel the work’s greatest impact, since family records of slaves were scarce. That’s changing, Thomas said.

“Scholars are trying to document African American history from roots in Africa through the period of slavery in a much more detailed way, which had not been thought possible because of lack of resources or because the names aren’t there. But the names are there in these files,” Thomas said.

“Many institutions are developing large databases of African Americans and their relationships to one another, which is uncovering a history that has largely been hidden.”

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