In our June 2017 issue, Dr. Sarah Gronningsater published an article titled “‘On Behalf of His Race and the Lemmon Slaves’: Louis Napoleon, Northern Black Legal Culture, and the Politics of Sectional Crisis.” She is an assistant professor of history at CalTech in Pasadena, California, with an expertise in legal, political, and constitutional history, focusing particularly on slavery and abolition. Later this summer, she will join the history faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.
Thanks so much, Sarah, for participating in this interview. How did you come across this topic?
In 2011, I presented a paper titled “Thwarting the ‘Slave Empire’: The Lemmon Slave Case, Territorial Expansion, and Everyday Legal Protest” at a University of Oxford graduate conference on the theme of “Building an American Empire, 1783-1861.” The truth is, before writing the paper, I hadn’t thought much about the Lemmon case. I was in the early days of writing my dissertation, which focused on black children’s legal, political, and social experiences during the era of northern gradual emancipation. I wanted to figure out how their childhood experiences shaped their adult involvement in antislavery law and politics, as well as their generational consciousness. It turned out—in ways I hadn’t anticipated when I started writing the paper—that the Lemmon case connected deeply to my dissertation research. Louis Napoleon, the black New Yorker who instigated the Lemmon case by petitioning for the writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the eight slaves from Virginia, was in fact just the sort of person I’d been thinking about in my research. He was born around 1800 in New York, right after the state passed its 1799 gradual emancipation law. He was a “child of gradual emancipation” who grew up to be an antislavery agitator. I became obsessed with learning everything I could about him.
In short, because I really wanted to attend this conference at Oxford, I wrote a paper with an “American Empire” theme, the Lemmon case fit the theme, and because Napoleon was a crucial figure in the Lemmon case, I started looking for every shred of archival evidence I could find. So, thank you to former Oxford graduate students, David Sim and Huw David, who organized the 2011 conference!
The full interview can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.