Legal History Book Explores Wills and Race

Bernie D. Jones


Suffolk Law School Associate Professor Bernie D. Jones explores the social implications of court contests over wills attempting to bequeath property, freedom or both to white slaveholders’ partners of color and their mixed-race children in her book Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South.

Some white planters in the antebellum South used trusts and estates law to give their slave partners and children official recognition and thus circumvent the law of slavery.

Fathers of Conscience examines high-court decisions that resulted when extended families contested the wills, judgments that determined whether that elevated status would be approved or denied by courts of law.

Jones argues that these will contests indicated a struggle within the elite over race, gender and class issues -- over questions of social mores and who was truly family.

Judges acted as umpires after a man's death, deciding whether to permit his attempts to provide for his slave partner and family.

Fathers of Conscience is one of the series “Studies of the Legal History of the South.”  Each book in the series explores a single aspect of the law or the development of the legal system in the South.

The analysis of differing judicial opinions on inheritance rights for slave partners in Fathers of Conscience makes “an important contribution to the literature on the law of slavery in the United States,” according to Mark Tushnet, author of Slave Law in the American South: State v. Mann in History and Literature.

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