'Freedom Papers' Author takes 'Atlantic Odyssey'

By Kurt Anthony King

Legal News

University of Michigan law professor Rebecca J. Scott has always enjoyed puzzling over historical problems and finding ways to convey analytic material through narrative.

She does this in her latest book, the award-winning "Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation" (Harvard University Press $35), which she co-wrote with Jean M. Hébrard, a U-M visiting professor specializing in French history.

"Writing (this book) was an exciting challenge, because we have aimed to explore the nature of freedom in the 19th century by piecing together the history of one family, from the departure of the woman called Rosalie from West Africa around 1785, into a life of slavery, on through her freedom, the lives of her children, the participation of her various grandchildren in the Union Army in 1863, and then the experience of her great-great-granddaughter in the resistance to the Nazi occupation of Belgium," recalled Scott, 62, of Ann Arbor.

A native of Athens, Ga., Scott earned her undergraduate degree in international relations from Radcliffe College in 1971, her graduate degree in economic history from the London School of Economics in 1973, and her Ph.D. in history from Princeton University in 1982. She has been teaching at U-M for 30 years, the last 10 in U-M Law School. While she is not a lawyer, she is a law historian.

"After 20 years of teaching (history), I realized that many of the questions that I was working on - the dynamics of slave emancipation, the nature of citizenship, the struggle for equal rights --had a significant legal component," said Scott. "A law school colleague invited me to co-teach a course in the law school on the history of voting rights. I enjoyed working with legal materials and with law students, and began teaching regularly in the Law School in 2002."

She has authored two other books: "Slave Emancipation in Cuba" and "Degrees of Freedom."

"Although the methods of research in the book are those of historians, many of the questions are deeply legal," Scott said. "What made someone a slave? Was it a written title, the sheer exercise of force, or something else? And what made someone free in a slaveholding society? What if your freedom papers lacked one crucial signature? Or if you left a colony where slavery had been abolished and landed in one where slavery still existed? Could someone still find a property right in your person?"

The impetus behind writing "Freedom Papers" began with the unexpected discovery in the National Archives in Havana, Cuba of an 1899 letter from Edward Tinchant, a Belgian cigar-maker, to General Máximo Gómez, a Cuban revolutionary officer. Tinchant wanted to use Gómez's portrait on the boxes of his Belgian cigars. To persuade Gómez, who was known for his anti-racism, to grant this favor, Tinchant invoked his own Haitian origins, his Civil War service, and his family's repudiation of the "infamous laws and stupid prejudices" of antebellum Louisiana. The letter was a clue that members of this family had embraced several struggles for equal rights across a long span of time and across a wide Atlantic sphere of action.

However, Scott and Hébrard began with a simpler idea: finding Tinchant's origins and understanding the roots of his strong commitment to equal rights.

They learned that in the 1867-68 Louisiana Constitutional Convention, Tinchant argued for women's rights and for equal "public rights," including the rights to public accommodation and public transportation. In his newspaper writings, he identified himself as a "son of Africa."

"We found that he carried a long Atlantic history on his shoulders, dating back to the experience in captivity of his grandmother, Marie Françoise (called Rosalie who was mentioned above), who was held as a slave in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue and who became free during the Haitian Revolution. As the story unfolded, though, we saw that three of Edward's brothers had each taken a different path when faced with the predicament of being 'free men of color' in the world of the U.S. Civil War. So the story expanded sideways," explained Scott.

She continued: "Then, just as we were finishing the book, we came across evidence that Edward's grand-niece had been caught up in the drama of Belgian resistance to the Nazi occupation of their country. So the story of three generations became the story of five generations. The book ends with the terrible symmetry of the incarceration in 1944 of Edward's grand-niece Marie-José in Germany in Ravensbrück concentration camp, which was itself a slave labor camp."

One of the challenges of writing this book was working with sources in English, French, and Spanish. The authors wrote an English version and a French version, which will be published in 2013.

"We are both perfectionists, so proofreading text in two languages and footnotes in three has been a big challenge," said Scott. "We open almost every chapter with an arrival, and close with a departure, as someone climbs on a boat and heads for another shore. We were able to write the story using this technique, which was developed by 19th century novelists, who produced chapters for publication in serial form. But at every step of the way we have documented, with footnotes tucked in back, the precise basis for each assertion, and the source of each discovery. To us, the drama feels even more intense precisely because we took no fictional liberties at all."

"Freedom Papers" recently won the 2012 Albert Beveridge Book Award in American History and the 2012 James Rawley Book Prize in Atlantic History.

Published: Thu, Dec 27, 2012

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