Slaves, Free Blacks, and Race in the Legal Regimes of Cuba, Louisiana, and Virginia: A Comparison

BY Ariela Gross & Alejandro de la Fuente

This Article analyzes the legal regimes regulating slavery and race at the ground level as they evolved in three different locations in the Americas (Virginia, Cuba, and Louisiana), showing how they shaped, and were shaped in turn, by the actions of people of color. The Article attempts to compare law “from the bottom up”: regulatory efforts by local legislatures, slaves’ claims in court, trial-level adjudications, and interactions among ordinary people and low-level government officials. We begin with the greatest commonality of racial status across the Americas: all over the New World, slaveholders built discriminatory legal regimes that sought to equate “negro” and “slave.” We then follow the trajectories of these legal systems in three different periods: the early years of these colonies, until roughly the 1760s; the Age of Revolution, from the 1770s through the early nineteenth century; and the nineteenth century, up to the U.S. Civil War and the Cuban wars of independence. We pay special attention to the ways slaves attempted to attain freedom, and the development of communities of free people of color. We show that in the earliest period, Iberian legal precedents meant a quicker establishment of racial distinctions than in Virginia, but that as slave legal regimes developed, the Iberian legal precedents limited the ability of colonial slaveholders to close down avenues to freedom in both Cuba and Louisiana. The size of the communities of free people of color that resulted from freer manumission policies had significant repercussions for black citizenship after emancipation.

DOWNLOAD PDF | 91 N.C. L. Rev. 1699 (2013)