Maryland State House, 1789

Finding state laws about slaves and free blacks has always been a complicated process. If you’re the typical genealogist like me, you didn’t have easy access to expensive databases.

You had to visit a law library and search each year’s laws. You could also try to do that online. I promise you it was no fun.

Some books have been published for particular states, for example the book “Black Laws of Virginia” but they are not available for every state.

HeinOnline to the Rescue

Last year, HeinOnline announced that they would provide free access to their online database, Slavery in America and the World. I was not familiar with this company, but it’s a subscription site that lawyers use to research laws and cases. I immediately signed up.

I’m going to walk you through each step of finding laws related to slavery using Tennessee as an example:

  • First, go to the site and request your free account. I also suggest watching the short video on the webpage about the collection.
  • Sign in and select “Browse Collections By Name,” and click on “Slavery in America and the World.”
  • You’ll see a list of each state in the U.S. Click on your state of interest.
  • (You can also click on “United States” and find links to every law passed by the Congress regarding slavery.)
  • You’ll see a list of links to the digital image of every statute passed by year in the state legislature. You’ll have to start at the beginning and click through each year, which will take you to the image of the actual act passed.

Keep in mind that many states passed private acts and public acts and you’ll have to view both. Frequently, acts were required for permission for free blacks to stay in a state, manumission of slaves, or bringing slaves in from other states.

Just as an interesting sidenote, the 1825 Act below is entitled “An Act to prevent certain children of color from inheriting the estate of their mother’s husband.”

You’ll need to keep track of when certain laws were either repealed or amended, which they frequently were.

Closing Thoughts

We can’t understand the lives of our ancestors without understanding the laws of the state in which they lived. That remains true for those of us researching the period of slavery.

For example, some free blacks in Maryland and Virginia agreed to re-enslave themselves. This might seem strange to us, unless you knew that many states had laws requiring free blacks to leave the state. The choice they faced was to either re-enslave themselves, or leave their families. Apparently, some choose to stay with their families.

In the comments below, please share with us laws that you have discovered during your research that impacted your ancestors.





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