I eagerly watched the Roots remake this past week. I remember watching the original series lo those many years ago. I had, of course, forgotten about much of the story. In this new version I found a few things of particular interest. First, there were few references to "law." This was a story about inhumanity at the ground level. This is a story, largely, about slave-owners doing whatever they want, including the lynching of a free black man and a white woman who were spies for the United States. There is a long lineage to this focus on brutality instead of law. When white abolitionists wrote about slavery, they often focused on the structure supporting slavery. This is a key theme in Uncle Tom's Cabin, for instance. But when black abolitionists wrote, they often focused on inhumanity. 12 Years a Slave follows this pattern, largely -- though an appendix to 12 Years a Slave discusses the New York law that provided support for reclaiming Northup.
Second, there are a few references to law. The legal system appeared in a vignette of a slave patrol. The clearest reference to law was the requirement that free people leave North Carolina after 90 days or face re-enslavement. (This is what led to Chicken George leaving the Murray plantation.) This came up when "Chicken" George came home a free man after fifteen years of service in England. (Little side note here: I am curious about this because I thought that slavery was abolished in England by this time.)
Third, the Nat Turner rebellion makes a cameo appearance. Chicken George is traveling with his owner (who was from Caswell County) through Greensville County in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion. Some of the local militia (or maybe they were self-appointed patrols) were searching for rebels and potential rebels. The rebellion didn't touch Greensville, which is near Southampton -- but a lot of the panic around the rebellion stretched to Greensville, including some prosecutions of suspected rebels.
Fourth, a lot of Roots is set in North Carolina -- Kizzy is sold to a person in Caswell County. The next stop for the family is in Alamance County. Clearly a drive around Alamance County is in order to get some pictures of the Cross Roads area, which is where Andrew Murray's plantation was located, as I understand it.
Fifth, the images of the plantations are I think misleading. While we all have images of Tara in our minds for the old South -- grand plantation mansions -- the reality was that the plantations homes were much less elegant than that. Sure, there are some "great" plantation homes, most were much less grand.
Now I understand that a lot of Roots is about imagined conversations -- about how people might have spoken to one another and what those interactions might have been like. Thus, this isn't necessarily accurate history -- it's how we imagine history went, according to the known data points. But I'm still interested in what this says to legal historians -- and how we can use Roots to evaluate themes in legal history. One theme that I'm deeply interested in regarding pre-Civil War legal history is how we should understand the rights of free people in the old South. Roots suggests that law, to the extent anyone paid attention to it, supported the institution of slavery.
The image is the Caswell County Courthouse, which was built at the beginning of the 1860s. Maybe I should have used the Greensville County Courthouse instead?