Comparing Law, Slavery, Race, and Freedom in the Americas: Cuba, Louisiana, and Virginia, 1500-1868

Collaborative Group

Professor Ariela J. Gross, Professor Alejandro de la Fuente


African and African American Studies and History


Enslaved people across the Americas made claims on legal institutions in order to gain their freedom or improve their lives. Many shared legal knowledge across broad networks that crossed boundaries of nation and empire. Yet those borders made a difference; the varying trajectories of legal regimes helped set the terms within which free and enslaved people of color operated. In their project, historian Alejandro de la Fuente and legal scholar Ariela Gross examine Cuba, Louisiana, and Virginia over several centuries as case studies to explore the way people of color challenged the boundaries of slavery and freedom, black and white. Unlike some other comparative studies, their work uses the techniques of cultural-legal history, studying the interactions of ordinary people with law in their everyday lives. Their sources—trial court records, statutes, and ordinances passed by local assemblies; petitions for freedom to local officials; and other local archives—reveal the stories behind the cases. By comparing three jurisdictions across three centuries, de la Fuente and Gross identify and highlight the ways that law interacted with demography, economy, politics, and culture to create very different slave societies, and very different possibilities for freed people to become citizens. In particular, they emphasize the crucial role of law in creating communities of free people of color, and in turn, influencing the roles free people of color played in challenging racial hierarchies, carving out new legal rights, and shaping the meaning of race and freedom. The coauthored book that results from this research will be the first comparative study that scholars and students in a range of fields can turn to for a broad perspective on law, race, and slavery. By exploring the interactions of slaves and free people of color with courts and other legal institutions, their project illuminates the ways that law shaped slave societies, from below as well as from above. Gross and de la Fuente have published several articles together on comparative law, race, and slavery before embarking on this book project. Award period: July 1, 2017 through August 31, 2018