In 1856, Catherine Atkins, a 26-year-old free woman of color from Maryland, sued Lowndes County resident Dunston Banks for illegally holding her as a slave — and won.
There’s not much detail Mona Vance-Ali, archivist at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, knows about the case. But no one would know about it — or more than 50,000 other circuit court cases from the 1800s and early 1900s — at all if library employees, interns and volunteers hadn’t spent the last six years going through the records and organizing them for historians, genealogists and other visitors at the library’s local history section.
About two weeks ago, librarians finally completed the massive project.
The records had been sitting in the archives since the library obtained them from the courthouse in the late 1990s, Vance-Ali said, but there were only indexes made of the probate records. It wasn’t until 2012 when Vance-Ali decided it was a good project for an intern.
“I really wasn’t sure 100 percent what we were going to find, but I knew that there had to be important historic information in there about our community,” Vance-Ali said.
The cases all came from Lowndes County Circuit Court between 1829 and 1919. At the time, circuit court covered lawsuits involving more than $2,500, as well as other civil and criminal matters.
Brenda Durrett, local history archivist at the library, worked on the records the longest. She spent between three and four years pouring through individual court cases.
“I cannot tell you how amazing it feels to finish,” Durrett said. “I’m a finisher. And this was not a quick project.”
The court cases were in mostly chronological order and Durrett went through them methodically, entering the court case number, the date, the plaintiff’s name and other notes. It was eight hours a day deciphering 19th Century handwriting that had often been crammed into small spaces and written in ink that bled through the paper.
“The handwriting was very difficult to decipher,” Durrett said. “I couldn’t have done it without a magnifying glass a lot of times.”
She and Vance-Ali often dealt with outdated legal terms they didn’t know, for which they called local historian and former attorney Rufus Ward. By the time the project was finished, the cases were indexed in several books that will stay in the local history shelves for visitors to read, as well as copied on disks.
“I enjoyed the project but it was tough at times,” Durrett said. “… But it’s worth it because it will be an excellent resource for anybody for years to come that comes through the local history doors.”
“The whole history of the community is encapsulated in all that,” he said. “You have everything from probate matters involving families to crimes. It provides a very accurate (account) of the community a long time ago.”
‘Babies being sold, children being sold’
There were several topics Vance-Ali said she hoped would come up in the court cases, including information on steamboats and Native Americans living in the area. But Vance-Ali’s particular interest was African-American history.
“For African-American genealogists, there is sort of a brick wall for records before 1865 simply because prior to that time they would not have been considered citizens, and they oftentimes would not have had last names if they were slaves,” Vance-Ali said. “So the record trail becomes very difficult and murky. This index allows people to have another resource … so that they can sort of move beyond that wall and find records earlier than 1865.”
Since many of the records deal with monetary and property cases, they often shed light on slavery, she said.
“Say for example a white … slave owner went out the night before and lost a lot of money gambling or lost a lot of money in the stock market,” Vance-Ali said. “What were the consequences for … the people who were under his bondage? He would be the one that would end up selling your child, selling your wife, selling your brother, selling you all, selling you in order to pay his debt. It also mentions individuals who are sold along with their mother because they’re not weaned yet. Babies being sold, children being sold. It really puts that human face on an institution that many people may be aware of but may not understand the day to day struggle and the reality that that was all happening here in our community.”
In another case they found, one man sued another for property damage. He had purchased a slave who had been beaten so severely he couldn’t work.
“In order to compensate his funds, (the white individual) sued the seller,” Vance-Ali said. “But the reality is you also get the story of the fact that the African American, the slave, is the one who’s experiencing this.
“We hear about plantations and cotton and all of those things, the very ‘Gone with the Wind’ image, but this isn’t a movie,” she added. “This is not somebody trying to tell you what happened. This is the actual person speaking through these records to us, their experience.”
‘Our community’s voice’
Both Vance-Ali and Ward emphasized not only the importance of the records, but how rare it is for local libraries to have them.
“A lot of counties have not saved those records or they’ve been lost,” Ward said. “Lowndes County is very fortunate to have them. It’s one of a very few number of libraries in Mississippi that has those records. In most counties where they’re saved, they are in the basement of a courthouse or the files are hard for the general public to access. … By the library indexing them, that provides a means that somebody who’s not a lawyer or somebody who’s not used to dealing with legal records can get into and find somebody’s name.”
The next project the archivists plan to tackle is misdemeanor criminal cases from the mid-1900s. Durrett has been working on them about two weeks, and said she’s already seeing everything from gambling and drinking to “ladies of the night.”
“(These records) really just show how our community was made up of people,” Vance-Ali said. “People are still people. They can be happy, sad, mean, kind, in debt, rich. For as long as there are people, you’re going to have people doing all sorts of things.
“These are us,” she added. “This is our community’s voice, our community’s story.”
“With their secrets and their mysteries,” Durrett added. “And their surprises.”
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