Neither Slave Nor Free:
The Plight of Freedmen in the Antebellum South
Historians don’t know much about Phebe Martin, a free black woman born on the eve of the American Revolution. Mississippi court documents from the first decade of the 19th century suggest a harrowing story. Those documents, recently unearthed from the center’s Natchez Trace Collection, state that she was abducted in the 1790s from her home in Georgia. From there, she was taken to Mississippi and sold into bondage, her kidnappers claiming that she was just another runaway slave.
Somehow around 1800, Martin was brought before a judge in Adams County, Mississippi, and allowed to state her case. Evidently the judge, Daniel Clark, was moved enough by her claims to issue subpoenas for those who could back up her story. In 1803, a jury declared her free, furnishing her with a legal document to verify that claim. It was also recommended that the kidnappers be charged with battery and abduction — to be given the “strong arm of justice” for their “most daring violation of the laws.” Martin even received damages — the token sum of 1 cent.
The documents inspired Dr. Penne Restad’s undergraduate history class, “317N Reading U.S. History Between the Lines.” The class met throughout the spring of 2017, examining the Natchez Trace documents as well as using census records, newspaper archives and secondary sources to flesh out the details of Martin’s life.
Students came individually to the Briscoe Center in order to delve further into the Natchez Trace Collection. In March, the class visited the TACC Visualization Laboratory on campus in order to view archival documents related to Phebe Martin on a massive scale using a 328 megapixel display called STALLION.
“Suddenly, we could see each individual pen-stroke, splatter marks, and three tiny holes on the corner of one page. Could they have been used to thread together other pages? If so, where were they?” wrote one student on the class’s blog, www.searchingforphebe.wordpress.com. “Enlarging the papers made the stories of Phebe, the courtroom and the people who witnessed and acted in it, seem so tangible and present.”
In 1800, Mississippi was a frontier territory. As economic growth in Europe (especially England) fueled demand for cotton exports, Americans poured deeper into the South and began to farm its fertile soils. Coupled with this development, the tobacco plantations of the Upper South were in decline, creating a surplus of slave labor. According to the Mississippi Historical Society, approximately 63,000 slaves were brought to Mississippi between 1798 and 1817. It is likely that Martin’s kidnappers believed they could slip under the radar during this era of dizzy transience in southern history. They failed in all likelihood because Mississippi was a federally governed territory rather than a state. Additionally, their actions probably undermined the local slave market.
Student research led to numerous other speculations about Phebe Martin’s story. Did she emigrate to or from Canada as some records suggest? Did she change her name? Were Martin’s kidnappers ever brought to justice? How long did she endure slavery and abduction before she was brought before the court? Why did the case take several years to work through? Was she jailed during that time? What happened after she was freed?
While many of these questions may never be answered, the Briscoe Center’s documents, along with the student’s research show how precarious freedom was for the tiny minority of African Americans in the antebellum South who weren’t enslaved.
“In addition to earning three required history credits, this class experienced working in one of the largest archives of American history, producing digital content, exploring the applications of new technologies, and interacting with an array of professionals who model career opportunities for Liberal Arts majors,” said Restad in a thought piece about the class posted here: http://bit.ly/2s8jOI2. “The students learned about the complexity of “doing history”—the importance of framing solid questions, thinking creatively about finding answers, and successfully communicating their findings.”