FROM CHATTEL TO JUSTICE
By Sylvia H. Walbolt and Andrew D. Manko
Carlton Fields, Jorden, Bert
It has been a long journey for African-Americans in the Florida Supreme Court, from decisions in which the Court considered them property over which other persons had rights in them as slaves, to decisions addressing their fight for civil rights, to later decisions in which African-Americans were justices of the Court helping to shape the law of Florida for all of its citizens. This article does not attempt to discuss all such decisions, but rather addresses a sampling that demonstrates the evolution of our state from a slave-owning society, to a segregated society, and now a fully integrated society in which African-Americans sit as justices of the Court.
Because African-American slaves were considered chattels, not persons, the early decisions of the Florida Supreme Court involved arcane, technical principles of property law, difficult for even a lawyer to understand today. Despite this, they provide fascinating insight into the long-ago society that viewed African-Americans as valuable chattels that could be sold or passed on to heirs, just like any other piece of property. We begin with those decisions.
1. Property Rights in African-Americans
In Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856), the United States Supreme Court held that a slave lacked the right to sue in federal court to regain his freedom after living in a state where slavery was illegal. In so holding, the Court said the Constitution “makes no distinction” between a slave and “other property owned by a citizen.” Id. at 451. An African-American slave “was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it.” Id. at 407. That certainly was the casual, unquestioning attitude of the Florida Supreme Court for many years – a Court which had slaveholders as justices in its early days. See Manley, III, Walter W., et al., The Supreme Court of Florida and Its Predecessor Courts, 1821-1917 113, 117 (1997).
One of the first reported decisions of the Florida Supreme Court involving African-Americans appears to be Horn v. Hartman, 1 Fla. 63, 1846 WL 1001, at *1 (Fla. Jan. Term 1846). As was common in the Court’s early decisions, the legal documents at issue are set forth in the reported decision. There, in an “action of trover, for the conversion of a negro man,” the plaintiff had received a deed conveying a slave named Will (and his wife Milly and seven cows and calves) to plaintiff, but reserving a life interest in this “property” to the grantor. Id. at *1-2. Sustaining the plaintiff’s argument that a property bequest in a later will to convey Will to others did not control, the Court stated that “[n]othing is better settled than that, an interest in remainder, after an interest for life expires, may be....
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