During the United States’ Antebellum Period, considered by some historians to have lasted from the late 18th century to the American Civil War, Indigenous and enslaved peoples engaged in widespread legal mobilization as a means of challenging the exploitation they endured. Their suits for freedom, and habeas corpus petitions for remedy against wrongful imprisonment on both institutional and interpersonal levels, are crucial to the principles of the American legal system. However, the details behind those actions for the most part have not been studied or circulated.
This summer, Autumn Green ’24 is among eight undergraduates from across the U.S. conducting historical legal research through the Digital Legal Research Lab at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. The initiative is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site and is considered an interdisciplinary hub for the social scientific study of freedom making in the United States during the 19th century.
“I’m very, very interested in social and historical context in relation to complex legal civil rights issues rather than just doctrinal rule of law,” said Green, an English major who plans to become a lawyer. She is one of three students this summer working with University of Nebraska Professor of History William G. Thomas III on “O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law and Family,” a project documenting the challenge to slavery and the quest for freedom in early Washington, D.C. Green and her fellow students have been examining digitized records from petitions and suits filed between 1800 and 1862, as well as tracing multigenerational family networks.
At the same time, Green is learning about the findings of the other five peers in her cohort who are working with University of Nebraska Associate Professor of History Katrina Jagodinsky, the primary investigator for a second project underway this summer. “Petitioning for Freedom: Habeas Corpus in the American West” is looking at more than 8,000 habeas corpus petitions from Black, Indigenous, immigrant, institutionalized, and dependent petitioners over the 19th century in Washington, Oregon, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, and Arizona.
In an article for Nebraska Today, Jagodinsky noted, “We’re unique in that there aren’t a lot of REUs that are history focused. [Thomas] and I really saw a gap in training in legal history, and legal research generally, that we felt we could address. In graduate school, researchers are expected to be able to navigate legal archival research, digital databases for legal research, and then also apply sophisticated methods and methodologies to that work, but there’s very little undergraduate training or preparation for that work.”
Since June 1, Green has immersed herself in learning and performing raw data collection and processing, archive interpretation, and transcription and encoding. She’s also receiving seminar-style instruction on relevant literature, research methods, professional development, and developing her own research questions. “It’s a five-day-a-week, all-day kind of thing,” she said. “I have been transcribing documents that aren’t on main online legal databases. Our primary investigators had to go to D.C. to collect them from the National Archives and Records Administration as well as from the Supreme Court, which tried a number of the freedom suits we are working with, and local court archives.”
Green’s work has not been without obstacles. “Many of the documents are severely damaged. I had one case that was rescued from a fire. So, when I was transcribing I had to encode it with a note to that effect and add that the language was unclear and the data could not be recovered.”
As a result of her work this summer, Green said she has acquired new research skills and the ability to apply quantitative analysis to humanities data. She’s also learned how to think of more creative ways of structuring humanities data without losing personal and important historical context. “We use a lot of spreadsheets to notate the characteristics of a suit, the arguments the individual brought, the kind of plaintiffs in a certain type of case, and the characteristics of cases that succeeded and those that failed.”
Green noted that “a significant portion” of the data set in the “O Say Can You See” project consists of “Black mothers using petitions for freedom or habeas suits to sue for custodies civilly of their children, which is not something you would expect from a modern understanding of what habeas corpus is. They’re suing for custody on the basis that their children were being wrongfully imprisoned.”
She emphasized that “while reading the decisions of different courts with a deeper understanding of case-specific circumstances has given context to what we know to be the racist and discriminatory history of the law, the focus really is on creating accessible databases that emphasize marginalized people’s legal strategies and stories recenters historical legal analysis to promote forward-facing scholarship, which recognizes communities and people that legal systems work against, or attempt to exclude.”
The culmination of the Digital Legal Research Lab will be a research fair on August 5 in which Green and the other members of her cohort will make presentations based on their work. In the future, she is “definitely interested in exploring other research experiences in the legal history realm, or the legal realm, or the history realm,” and is looking forward to applying the skills she’s learned this summer to her undergraduate studies at Hollins. “I can definitely see using more quantitative data structures and looking at raw data for research in my classes, or if I want to do a thesis.”
She is also excited about the ways in which her experience this summer will be an asset as she goes on to pursue a law career. “I feel like the knowledge of the law that I’ve gained in this program and how to conceptualize data and fact in creative and quantitative ways will be helpful.”