Fixing the Color Line: The Mulatto, Southern Courts, and Racial Identity

Fixing the Color Line: The Mulatto, Southern Courts, and Racial Identity

American Quarterly
Volume 53, Number 3 (September 2001)
pages 420-451
E-ISSN: 1080-6490
Print ISSN: 0003-0678
DOI: 10.1353/aq.2001.0033

Teresa Zackodnik, Professor of English
University of Alberta, Canada

In July 1857 Abby Guy sued for her freedom and that of her four children in an Arkansas court. The court records state that Abby Guy had been supporting herself and her children by farming and selling her own crops. The Guy family “passed as free persons”: Abby’s oldest daughter “boarded out” so that she could attend school, and the family “visited among white folks, and went to church, parties, etc.,–[such that one] should suppose they were white.”  Following these accounts of where and how the Guys lived, the court required that the family be presented for physical inspection by the jury, which was to base its decision of whether Abby Guy and her children were black or white, slave or free, on their appearance as well as on any testimony offered: “Here the plaintiffs were personally presented in Court, and the judge informed the jury that they… should treat their… inspection of plaintiffs’ persons as evidence.”  Following their evidentiary “inspection” of the Guy family, the jury was told that the Guys had lived as “free persons” in Arkansas since 1844. In 1855 they moved to Louisiana where a Mr. Daniel “took possession of them as slaves” roughly two years later, claiming that Abby Guy “came with . . . [him] from Alabama to Arkansas” as his slave.  Witnesses for Daniel testified that Abby’s mother, Polly, was said to have been “a shade darker than Abby,” such that they “could not say whether Polly was of African or Indian extraction.”…

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