Authors Meet Critics

Dylan Penningroth, “Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights”

Recorded on November 14, 2023 at UC Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix, this “Authors Meet Critics” panel is focused on Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights, by Dylan Penningroth, Professor of Law and Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of History at UC Berkeley, and Associate Dean, Program in Jurisprudence and Social Policy / Legal Studies at Berkeley Law.

Professor Penningroth was joined in conversation by Ula Yvette Taylor, Professor and 1960 Chair of Undergraduate Education in the UC Berkeley Department of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies; and Eric Schickler, Professor, Jeffrey & Ashley McDermott Endowed Chair in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley. The panel was moderated by Waldo E. Martin Jr., the Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of American History and Citizenship at UC Berkeley.

The Social Science Matrix “Authors Meet Critics” book series features lively discussions about recently published books authored by social scientists at UC Berkeley. For each event, the author discusses the key arguments of their book with fellow scholars. The panel was co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Jurisprudence and Social Policy (JSP) graduate program, Berkeley School of Law, the Center for the Study of Law and Society (CSLS), the Center for Race and Gender (CRG), and the UC Berkeley Department of History.

About the Book

dylan penningroth book coverThe familiar story of civil rights goes something like this: Once, the American legal system was dominated by racist officials who shut Black people out and refused to recognize their basic human dignity. Then, starting in the 1940s, a few brave lawyers ventured south, bent on changing the law—and soon, everyday African Americans joined with them to launch the Civil Rights Movement. In Before the Movement, historian Dylan C. Penningroth overturns this story, demonstrating that Black people had long exercised “the rights of everyday use,” and that this lesser-known private-law tradition paved the way for the modern vision of civil rights. Well-versed in the law, Black people had used it to their advantage for nearly a century to shape how they worked, worshiped, learned, and loved. Based on long-forgotten sources found in the basements of county courthouses, Before the Movement recovers a vision of Black life allied with, yet distinct from, “the freedom struggle.”

Watch the panel above or on YouTube, or listen to it as a podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.



[MARION FOURCADE] OK. Hello, everybody. Welcome. My name is Marion Fourcade. I’m the director of Social Science Matrix. And I am very delighted to welcome you to our discussion of Dylan Penningroth’s book, Before The Movement– The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights, which just came out two months ago.

The book examines the everyday use of the law by ordinary Black people going back to the last decades of slavery. Penningroth shows that Black people exercised their legal rights at the local level and change the law in myriad and often unspectacular ways for well over a century before the civil rights movement. So Before the Movement challenges conventional historical accounts by recovering the agency of earlier generations and the essential role of local courthouses as theaters of legal and social change.

So we’re very grateful for the many co-sponsors for this event, which include the Center for Race and Gender, the Jurisprudence and Social Policy program, the law school, the Center for the Study of Law and Society, and the history department, only that. Today’s event is part of our Author Meets Critics series which features critically engaged discussions about recent books by Berkeley faculty.

So as always, I will mention a few upcoming events. Tomorrow, we will have a talk by Nivedita Menon who’s visiting Berkeley on her recently published book, Secularism as Misdirection. And then our next Authors Meet Critic is from Sharad Chari from the geography department. The book is called Gramsci at Sea.

We’ll have later that week after Thanksgiving, we’ll have a Matrix On Point featuring graduate students in conversation around new directions in the Study of Gender and Sexuality. And then our final Author Meets Critics of the season is a book by a new faculty member in the history department Trevor Jackson titled Impunity and Capitalism. And we have a lot more events. But those are just some of the highlights of this upcoming months.

Now, I will introduce our moderator. So Waldo E. Martin Jr. Is the Alexander F. and May T. Morrison professor of American history and citizenship here at the University of California Berkeley. He’s the author of No Coward Soldiers– Black Cultural Politics in Postwar America, which came out in 2005 as well as Brown V. Board of Education, A Short History with Documents, which came out in 2021, and The Mind of Frederick Douglass from 1985.

He’s a co-author with Mia Bay and Deborah Gray White of Freedom On My Mind– a History of African-Americans with Documents. Sorry. Yes. And also with another co-authored book with Joshua Bloom, Black Against Empire– The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, which came out in 2016. With Patricia Sullivan, he co-edited Civil Rights in the United States– An Encyclopedia.

So aspects of the modern African-American freedom struggle and the history of modern social movements unite, his current research and writing interests. And he’s currently completing another book titled, A Change is Gonna Come– the Cultural Politics of the Black Freedom Struggle and the Making of Modern America. So without further ado, Waldo, I’ll leave it to you to introduce our speaker and critics.

[WALDO E. MARTIN JR.] First off, I want to say it is an extraordinary pleasure to be a part of this event. I’m honored. I’m delighted. On some level, I feel like it’s old home week.

I first met this brother in the early ’90s. He was trying to figure out where to go to graduate school. He visited us. And then he had an epiphany and went to Hopkins. The rest they say is history, right?

And I’ve known you for decades. And it’s such a wonderful pleasure to meet Eric. I’ve actually read a number of pieces by you. And so I welcome you into the fold, my brother. Yeah.

First time meeting you. But it’s like old home week for me and all these, as I like to call them precious memories are flooding back. For example, his very first prize winning book was part of a series that I co-edited at the University of North Carolina Press, 2003. I think it was something like that. And Ula’s most recent book is also in that series, The Promise of Patriarchy– Women and the Nation of Islam.

Dylan specializes in African-American history as well as US sociolegal history. In addition to this amazing book Before the Movement, as I mentioned, he’s the author of The Claims of Kinfolk– African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth Century South, which won a lot of awards. He has held a number of fellowships, not only research fellowships.

But he’s been recognized equally by a number of organizations for his teaching excellence. He is a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. And before coming to Berkeley in 2015– and I was also part of the team that kept trying to hassle him about joining the faculty here. Eventually, it worked out.

He taught at the University of Virginia. He only taught three years. I was there for 10 years, my brother.


How long? Too long. Oops. You didn’t hear that. Cut that. Cut that. And he taught at Northwestern and was a research professor at the American Bar Association– American Bar Foundation.

Eric is the Jeffrey & Ashley McDermott professor of political science and the co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California. He’s the author of six books. One, Investigating the President– Congressional Checks on Presidential Power with Doug Kriner, which came out in 2016. And the book that I’ve actually, the piece that I’ve dipped into, Racial Realignment– The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965. In 2017, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Ula Taylor is professor of African-American Studies here at Berkeley and the 1960 chair of undergraduate education. She is the author of numerous books. The Veiled Garvey on Amy Jacques Garvey is a book that even to this day her concept of community feminism, I’m trying to figure out exactly what we’re talking about, my sister, dominates the kinds of conversations that I have.

And most recently, The Promise of Patriarchy, which came out on Women and the Nation of Islam. She’s a number of amazing and important pieces on African-American women’s history and feminist theory. She also won a Distinguished Professor Teaching Award.

And I must say I sat on the committee that gave her the award and did not recuse myself. Number one, because I knew she was an extraordinary teacher. But the encomiums from the other members on the committee went beyond me. So I felt OK. It’s OK for me to say she’s good. But Ula is most proud of her former students, a number of whom I’ve had the honor of working with her in their work. And a number of them are indeed transforming the field of Black studies.

So as I said, this is an august group to be a part of. I’m honored. And we’re going to do this. We’re going to start off with Dylan. He’s going to talk for about 20 minutes.

And then we’re going to move to Eric, 10 to 12 minutes. And then Ula will take us home. And then Dylan will have the opportunity to respond. And then we will open it up for questions. And thank you for coming. It’s nice to see so many wonderful beautiful faces in the place.

[DYLAN PENNINGROTH] Well, thank you, Waldo for that generous introduction. It’s really good to be here. I want to first thank Marion Fourcade for inviting me to be here and Julius Isaac for shepherding this event into being. I’m really grateful to Waldo and Ula and Eric for agreeing to be part of this conversation.

And I really want to thank all of you for choosing to spend part of your afternoon, your lunch hour, actually with us here. It’s really a privilege to be able to share some of my research with you here today. So I’m going to talk probably for close to the full 20 minutes because I don’t think anyone’s read the book. And it might be helpful for me to lay out what’s going on in this book.

So for the past several years, I’ve been trying to learn all that I can about how Black people use law, talked about law and thought about law from the 1830s to the 1970s. And so these brief remarks are aimed at trying to recount some of what I’ve learned. And I’m going to tell it in a few places partly through the eyes of some of my own relatives.

And what I want to do here and what I do in the book is I try to use the history of Black legal lives to challenge some of the ways that we as historians and law scholars have come to talk about civil rights and about African-American history more generally. I’m going to keep this as short as I can because I very much want to engage with questions from all of you.

So the story of civil rights that I think most people are familiar with goes something like this. So once upon a time, the legal system was dominated by racist state and local officials who refused to recognize not only Black people’s civil rights, but their basic human dignity and even their lives. So law was a fearsome, hostile power, something you needed to avoid whenever possible. It was full of unknowable secrets and often deadly.

Then according to the story in the 1940s, a few brave lawyers ventured south bent on changing the law. They confronted the system with a carefully planned series of strategic lawsuits. And also, they confronted the system with the powerful symbolism of a Black lawyer in a white courthouse.

And so soon ordinary African-Americans their sense of possibility awakened by Brown versus Board of Education and other Supreme Court victories. And then galvanized by racial justice activists, coalesced into a mass movement, demanding that the federal government force those racist state and local officials to recognize Black people as free full members of American society. This, I think, is the master narrative of civil rights. And it is powerful. It’s powerful not least because it refuses to concede to right wing reactionaries what the word freedom means.

But I think it’s also powerful because history is not just about the past. James Baldwin put it very well when he said history is literally present in all that we do. We carry it within us. And so the choices that historians make, what we choose to write about, what counts as evidence, and how to interpret it, these choices are inevitably shaped by the world around us. And African-American history is no different.

In its modern form, it grew directly out of the civil rights movement itself. Activists in the 1960s created Black history units to teach in the Mississippi Freedom schools. At colleges, a Black student movement demanded Black history courses.

They demanded faculty to teach them. And they demanded a wholesale rethinking of what our country’s history is and how it should be taught. Now, many leading historians, Black historians came into the field profoundly shaped by their own experiences as activists in the 1960s. In fact, some of them explicitly said that their scholarship was a continuation of the struggle for Black freedom.

Today, even as many historians remain committed to the idea of scholarship as struggle, they are debating what that struggle actually was and what lessons it holds for us today. So the first generation of historians after the civil rights movement, they tended to look from the top down. From the perspective of great leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and from the Supreme Court justices like Earl Warren.

Over the past 30 years, a grass roots approach, grass roots approach has transformed our understanding of the movement by rethinking it from the perspective of ordinary people, local people. And also by widening our view beyond the era of mass protests commonly known as the movement. So if we look backward to the 1930s and forward to the 1980s, these historians have shown, we can see a much bigger struggle.

A struggle that burned as fiercely in New York and Los Angeles as it did in Selma, Alabama. Movement activists, these historians have shown, realized that civil rights were not enough. Real freedom required changing the underlying structures that kept most Black people poor, politically weak, undereducated, and abused by police. It meant transforming American democracy itself.

What hasn’t been rethought is the fundamental moral drama of the movement in which civil rights and Black history more broadly are framed as an unfinished freedom struggle. A battle against the forces of plunder. A journey from humiliation to dignity, from second class citizenship to full citizenship. From Black fear in the face of white lawlessness to Black people defiantly asserting their rights under the law.

That moral vision gleams brightly today as police killings mercilessly continue and as Republican politicians knowingly enact policies that systematically hurt Black people. Movement centered scholarship is as urgent and necessary today as it was in the 1960s. But the notion of Black history as a freedom struggle has also cost us something. It has helped to make Black history almost synonymous with the history of race relations as if Black lives only matter when white people are somehow are in the picture.

It has laid a moral burden on African-American history that few other scholarly fields must carry. It urges us to judge our ancestors according to how well they advanced the freedom struggle. It is often infused a subtle romanticism into African-American history with Black people playing the role of humble folk heroes overcoming adversity against the odds. And most of all, it has shrunk our vision of Black life down to the few areas of law where federal law and social movements made a difference.

So there are shelves full of books about the struggles for the right to vote, to open up the workplace, the schools, and the military, and to challenge a violently racist criminal justice system. But surely, Black people cared just as much about things like marriage and divorce, old age care, property owning, running churches and businesses. But these do not fit easily into a story of freedom.

In a sense, historians have tended to echo the racial justice activists of the 1950s and ’60s whose courthouse showdowns with white officials have become canonized in films like Selma and Just Mercy. Because African-Americans were afraid to go to the courthouse to vote as one Black farmworker wrote in a letter to the NAACP, scholars today have assumed that they were afraid to go to the courthouse for anything else.

In the freedom struggle story, Black people are often seen as ordinary and heroic precisely because they knew so little about law. But if that is so, then why when a mass movement against racial injustice finally took hold in the 1950s did so many Black people put their faith in law at all? Civil rights history has left Black people disconnected from our own legal common sense. The way that we actually think about and use law in our daily lives.

It has made it harder to see Black people as people in full. African-Americans use civil rights all the time. They just weren’t the rights that we think of as civil rights. They weren’t about protection from discrimination or subordination on the basis of race or sex or other protected categories.

Instead, they were the ordinary rights of a free man, as one of the framers of the 14th Amendment put it. The basic rights of property, contract, and standing that Congress wrote into America’s first national civil rights law, the Civil Rights Act of 1866. And during the grim decades of Jim Crow, those were the rights that people exercised, not just in court but in their daily lives. Although they rarely had any reason to call them civil rights.

When my great great aunt Annie Holcomb paid my mother’s burial insurance policy each week on her doorstep. When she and my great great Uncle Thomas sold land to midweight Baptist church in Virginia. When they wrote down instructions about how and where they wanted to be buried on that land. Every time they did something that a court could protect, they were doing civil rights. They were exercising freedom.

They were making it mean something more than the negation of slavery, something more than the end of whips and chains. Civil rights were rights of everyday use. Now, big picture history has tended to veil this history. But the real reason it has stayed hidden is because of a basic institutional practice.

Legal documents do not typically identify people by race. Not in the keyword searchable appellate reports that are available on Westlaw or Lexis. And not even in county courts in Mississippi. Now, this was a surprise.

I mean, after all, the local courts, especially in Mississippi, played a key role in enforcing segregation. And most of these old records were written in the era when even the water fountains were marked as white and colored. Now, I’ll come back later if you want with a partial explanation of why and why that matters.

But my most urgent problem at that time was practical. I wanted to write Black history. And I couldn’t figure out who was Black. So that’s a head scratcher.

To get around it, I would hop in the car and spend a week or two visiting county courthouses. I usually made sure to include Cumberland, Virginia so I could go see my Uncle Henry and Aunt Margaret. I took pictures along the way as one does. And then I’d show up in the office of the local circuit clerk.

If they let me in the back room, I would pull down dockets, these big, heavy ledger books. I would pull them down at 10-year intervals. And I would copy down the names of a subset of cases for that year.

And then my research assistants and I would look up those names on So it’s more than the swabs, the DNA. You can also look up people by name in the census. So then once I had a list of cases involving Black people, I went back to each of the courthouses, sometimes twice. And then I read some of the cases.

It wasn’t foolproof. Really, no historical method is foolproof. Sometimes it was kind of gnarly. But gradually, we started to see a picture of when, where, and why Black people used the courts. By the end, we looked up more than 14,000 civil cases from two dozen courthouses in five states and the District of Columbia. And we identified more than 1,500 that involved Black people.

So race ducks in and out of west law. And it’s pretty much invisible in the county court dockets. This is how we made it visible. In fact, we found more cases involving Black people during the Jim Crow era than during Reconstruction.

Black people went from filing an average of 8% of the civil suits in my 1872 sample slice. And then that percentage rose to 11% in 1892 and 17% in 1902 where it leveled off for about 20 years. I do not know why it dips there. And I’d be happy to get ideas from people about why that is.

But it remained level for quite a while during Jim Crow. What did they go to court about? All sorts of things, just much the same as white people did. They went to court about divorces, about insurance payouts, railroad accidents, unpaid rent, and personal property.

They also used private law in more routine non-adversarial ways. So they weren’t always going to sue somebody. So they did things like they sold easements on their land. They made wills and got them probated. They had cars towed off their property. They sorted out homebuilding contracts, drunk driving disputes, and landlord tenant disputes. And they bought and sold and gifted land.

Now, of course, this was not a level playing field. With few exceptions, Black people’s legal activity did not challenge white supremacy in any substantive way. Most of their lawsuits were against other Black people. Only 8% of the cases in my Jim Crow slice of the sample crossed the color line.

And yet even as white local officials cut Black people off from formal schooling, farmers in places like Alabama took pride in having what Nate Shaw, an Alabama tenant farmer called goat sense, which I think is what he means is the common sense that God gave a goat. This is the rough and ready knowledge, the legal knowledge, the ideas and assumptions about law that most grown ups possess to varying degrees. So Shaw knew, for example, that each party to a joint promissory note is liable for the other’s debt.

He knew that a husband’s mortgage did not cover household goods unless his wife signed too. And he knew that a renter at the end of his lease had the right and privilege to take anything that ain’t tied down. That goat sense got refined through daily experience. And it was discussed in churches and in schools and in Black-owned newspapers.

In fact, even in the worst years of segregation, prominent African-Americans expressed a wary faith in contract and property as levers that could be used to quote, “uplift the race.” So for example, the AME Church review predicted. When we own railroad stock, we can have the Jim Crow car taken from the road.

Another leading minister put it bluntly, “By land, be a freeholder. And no powers on Earth can keep you down.” When I say that my Uncle Craig is ringing in my ears. He would say stuff like that.

In short, the obstacles to Black people using their civil rights during Jim Crow were not always as simple as the white and colored signs that we’re going up over the water fountains. By the 1960s, southern county courthouses had become a stage for protest just as Rosa Parks in 1955 had turned a bus into what Robin Kelly calls a moving theater of injustice. Voting rights activists in the 1960s turned county courthouses into a made for television drama in which ordinary Black people suddenly seemed to shake off centuries of fear, confronting racist white sheriffs and county clerks to demand their rights.

Over and over, in one county seat after another, Black marchers kneeled to pray on the courthouse steps as white cops glowered down on them from in front of the tall heavy double doors. Now, Black Southerner’s decisions during these 1960s campaigns were shaped by their working knowledge of state based private law. And yet movement activists tended to interpret their behaviors, the southerner’s behaviors, in nostalgic, almost anti-legalist terms as part of a southern way of life that they believed had kept generations of Black Southerners alienated from the law and afraid to approach the courthouse.

The activist said and I’ll quote, just one group of them, that African African-American Southerners quote, “Did not know much about legal things. They just wanted the right to vote, to use public facilities, to have jobs and decent schools, as well as a larger freedom, a freedom of the human spirit.”

But of course, Black people had known about legal things for a long time. And they were still highly active in local courts during the 1950s and ’60s. And again and again, the movement lifted up civil rights from the house porch and the county courthouse into the universal values of freedom, and justice, and dignity. And then it returned them transfigured as moral arguments.

Now, something of course got lost in that transfiguration. And that is the long, rich history of Black people’s legal experiences and ideas about rights. And so I think activists bequeathed to historians three deeply flawed assumptions.

First, that common law rights under state law and the local courts that judge those rights had been a closed book to Black people before the modern freedom struggle. Second, that those rights were not civil rights. And third, that they were essentially irrelevant compared with discrimination or subordination as defined by Congress and the Supreme Court, much less compared to the broader human freedoms that activists were now seeking.

There’s much to learn from the history of the Black freedom struggle. But if we want to understand Black people’s demands for the rights that America denied them, we have to pay more attention to how they talked about and use the rights that were not denied them. The associational privileges and common law civil rights they had been exercising for generations in county clerks offices and church basements. Rights of everyday use.

But I think we should go further. We should try to see Black people’s political, and economic, and religious, and family commitments as something more than episodes in the history of race relations, something more than echoes of America’s original sin, something more than signposts on the road to a more perfect union or facets of a struggle for Black freedom.

We have to put Black people at the center of our own history. And when we take that broader view, I think we’ll be able to see better the rich diversity of Black life. My basic premise is that Black people’s lives are worth studying in themselves.

[ERIC SCHICKLER] All right. Thanks so much. Beautiful summary of a tremendous book. So before I was asked to participate on this panel, I knew a little bit about Dylan’s work as a historian. And I also remembered how happy several of my colleagues were when he was recruited to Berkeley several years ago.

So I took a quick look at the blurb for the book and found it really interesting. And so it was an easy yes. I’m excited to read it. But I’ll confess that before I started reading the book, I thought I knew what it was about based just on I think probably my two quick reading of the blurb and maybe my own assumptions about how history tends to be read.

And that assumption was that its main contribution was going to be to push back the historical narrative of the civil rights movement to an earlier point than the kind of standard interpretations. And I thought, well, I’m kind of interested to see how does, how does he go about doing that. Because there’s been a bunch of work of rich literature that Dylan talks about in the book about the long civil rights movement that pushes back the narrative to the 1920s and ’30s. And it’s made tremendous contributions. As well as a little bit of work in political science with related ambitions.

Point out Megan Ming Francis has a really great book on the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign starting in the 1910s and into the 20s, and its role in state building in the US. And by tracing these earlier developments, I think these other works have identified different actors and agents as important. For example, highlighting the work of Ida B. Wells and bringing lynching onto the national agenda. And these works have often changed our understanding of the key causal factors shaping movement success as well as limitations.

So I assumed this book would do something similar to that. And it does, but it also does so much more than that. It really changes how– for me, changes how I think about civil rights in a fundamental way. And I think it’ll do so for other readers as well.

So at a basic level, the book offers a dramatic rethinking of the political, social, and legal history of civil rights in the US with important implications for how political scientists, historians, and legal scholars think and also teach. Something I’ll bring up at the very end. As Dylan just described, the archival work here is just amazing to behold. I mean, it was really– both as a foundation for evidence in terms of these court records and then linking it to And then also as a source.

When you read the chapters, what’s striking is there are these beautifully crafted narratives that tell the stories of these individual lives while connecting it up to these much broader analytical themes, which I think is really hard to do. And this book does it just exceptionally well. Brings the reader into a world that has not been explored in this way in the past by scholars.

Now, I’m going to recapitulate a little bit, but hopefully not too much some of what Dylan just talked about, and then get into what I see as the implications. The book really shows that a lot of what we think of today as prosaic rights, rights to property, contract, marriage, divorce among them form the core of much of how civil rights were understood both by Black and white Americans in the 19th century and into the 20th century. They were rightly long understood to be fundamental to living one’s life as an individual person.

But this view of civil rights has largely dropped out. And I think one of the most striking implications of the book is to demonstrate how legal scholarship has wrongly created a bifurcation where Black people are seen as relevant to the law in particular ways generally as Dylan just talked about, in juxtaposition to white controlled authority. Cases about voting rights, job discrimination, integrating schools, criminal justice.

When in reality, Black people were plaintiffs and defendants struggling for their civil rights in critical contract, property marriage law cases that not only affected their own lives as individuals, but also helped in important cases shape legal doctrines more broadly. And the basic claim is we’ve not seen this because of the shift in how civil rights are understood. Where the civil rights movement came to focus on these struggles for voting integration and job discrimination, which are very different from these private law cases.

And I think one of the key points here is that we should see civil rights both as the fundamental rights of any free people as well as the rights of particular groups, especially minorities, not to be discriminated against. And what’s happened is, we’ve come to see the latter. And we’ve lost sight of the former with really important consequences.

And so from this perspective, the NAACP’s legal strategy even with its many strengths, Dylan argues ceded the vast ground of private law that had actually been the kind of law that was in effect shaped the everyday lives of Black people. And just one example I thought was really interesting here is thinking about discrimination on trains and restaurants in terms of their contract and property rights as individuals. That was the rhetoric or the way it lens through which individual Black people in the south thought about and experience that. And it sort of gets cut out of our narrative or our understanding.

All right. So let me talk a little bit about implications. One of which Dylan talked about so I’m not going to say a lot about, but this idea of thinking about Black history not just in terms of race relations, but the everyday lives, struggles, and successes of Black people as agents. And so not just as agents with respect to white authorities. I think he talked about that wonderfully already.

Second, I think that maybe gets less attention directly in the book, and I’d be really interested to hear you talk more about it is the relationship between race and capitalism. And I think this is kind of implicit in the book. So one of the really interesting points is that even at the height of Jim Crow and to some extent in the pre-civil war era as well, white people recognize certain Black rights. And Dylan is very careful to argue that this was not due to some sense of fairness, paternalism, or absence of racism, but rather because life’s ordinary business.

Transactions in a market economy required it. or was facilitated it by it. In other words, Black people’s ability to enter into contracts and convey property benefited white and Black people alike under certain circumstances. So as the beautiful wording, framing that it’s easier to padlock the rail car and voter rolls and the property deed books in the courts.

And this also, I think, as he notes relates to the history of married women’s property rights. There’s also– one of the former student here, Sara Chatfield, has a really great book about this. One of the striking things in her book was even states like Mississippi ended up being among the first to pass married women’s property rights legislation. And it was bound up with these questions of how do you organize an economy.

Again, it was nothing to do with a lack of, in this case, gender discrimination, sexism. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about this. And also maybe to hear more about the discussion of property owning by free black people as well as in some cases enslaved people in the pre-civil war south where Dylon notes that 250,000 free Black people in the south owned the equivalent of $8.8 billion of property in 2021 values in 1860.

And one of the points made in the book is this kind of disrupts this challenge of dichotomy that there are white freedom and Black slavery, right? And so this led to various efforts to roll back these rights, limit the rights of free Black people. And one thing– and this happens in both the north and the south. And one thing and maybe I’ll be interested, and he notes the relationship to the rise of free labor ideology in relation to this.

So one thing I’d like to hear more about or maybe talk more about is the relationship of all this to developments in the party system where we know free Black voting rights initially were not a partisan issue, but become a partisan issue in the Jacksonian era. And so I’m just wondering if there’s also– how that relates to the property rights as well, for example.

All right. I’ve been going– another point here that I think is really valuable is connecting in a direct way the civil rights movement strategy to things that were learned from or a material basis created by this earlier court cases and property development of law earlier on. So a couple points here. One is just the observation that even in Brown versus Board, the litigation, the use of dolls and psychological damage can be traced back to thinking about a tort logic, a legal tort claim logic that Dylan notes.

Pauli Murray, one of the Black lawyer working on the case came up with this idea. So this connects the very legal strategies used in the civil rights movement to this earlier history. And again, something that’s been cut out.

And then also thinking– we talked about the role of the Black church in the civil rights movement. And I think one of the things this shows is, well, how did you get a Black church with enough resources and authority in a sense to play that role? Well, a lot of these cases about church property, church autonomy are contributed to that story. All right.

Finally, the study has really important implications for legal education. And so the book argues that one’s understanding of the development of property and contract law can be changed by reading cases in this way. In other words, with attention to the race of the plaintiffs and parties, both parties involved.

And Dylan argues I think quite persuasively that attention to this broader concept of civil rights can then help foster a more inclusive legal education where currently, the way law is taught– I haven’t gone to law school. But certainly rung true that legal education basically treats much of the kind of core legal education. It’s totally aside from, apart from Black people’s experience or race.

And then there’s a separate segment of anti-discrimination law. But the claim here, the contribution is that well, Blacks that when you– that actually, Black people were quite involved in formation of contract law, property law. And when you teach those concepts, it should not be taught in this sort of exclusive way. So I thought that was also just a really rich contribution.

All right. One maybe last question I’ll just pose is there’s been a lot of work in political science and elsewhere critiquing the legal strategy from a standpoint of reducing the radicalism of the movement, narrowing away from economic claims. And so I just was curious. This is a very different critique of the legal strategy.

And I’d just be interested to hear more about how do you see the relationship between this critique that you’re making or this revision that you’re making? I don’t know. Critique is probably not the right word.

And that body of scholarship that’s challenging from a kind of, could say broadly left social movement that the legal strategy de-radicalized the movement. And so I’d love to hear more about that. The bottom line, I mean, this is just a rich, deeply insightful book. It was just a pleasure to read. And I definitely recommend you pick up a copy. Thank you.

[ULA YVETTE TAYLOR] Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this conversation. Before the Movement– The Hidden History of Civil Rights is a seminal book that will no doubt become a canonical text in the fields of African-American and legal history. It’s a masterful rendering of African-American’s inner lives via their legal entanglements.

But it’s written in a fashion that reminds us of the most important and gifted Black women writers. There is no substitute for beautiful storytelling. And Dylan gives us snapshots into worlds that have largely remained hidden in plain sight.

I see two main goals of the book. The first is to push us to rethink how African African-Americans have impacted the shaping and enforcement of all kinds of legal proceedings and laws before what is understood as the modern 1950’s civil rights movement. Second, and what I find most fascinating, is the disentanglement of Black history from the freedom struggle.

That is, every time a Black person went to court, sought out a lawyer, or organized an association, it was not to dismantle an oppressive structure. Sometimes they just wanted to be treated fairly and to reap the benefits, both real and imagined, of legal protection. Neither of these goals is easy to achieve. And I am in awe of Dylan’s intellectual grasp of so many moving parts.

Before the end of legal slavery, Dylan enters into the vortex of African-American’s legal possibilities through the rubric of privileges. And I’m putting it in parentheses, privileges. And after the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments, so-called privileges move into the category of rights. And Dylan builds an argument that makes real how Black people with careful intention learn how to make meaning of their rights largely through Black newspapers and the Black church.

During both periods, what becomes crystal clear is that both enslaved and legally free African-Americans were daily determined to embrace all possibilities of a better life. To be able to feed their families. To hold property that allowed them to work the land. To work as artisans. To keep their churches, benevolent societies and associations solvent. And to give their heirs a chance to have a financial leg up.

Overall, what Dylan drives home is that the legal lives of many Black people had nothing to do with dismantling oppressive structures, but everything to do with making the best decisions for themselves, their families, and their communities. Going to court or assessing lawyers, serve to keep what they had or what they felt they were entitled to, the courthouse is more of a place to secure a property. Even though most African-American historians document it as a site for civil rights, which are largely linked to the principles of non-discrimination.

County court records are the primary archive and unwieldy collection of documents that take the patience of a saint to slog through. But I also love reading the snatches from the rare collections of lawyer’s papers as an enhancement to the primary archive, to narrate the legal lives and culture of Black people. Now, please know this is also not an easy task. Because just like today, documents are filled with truths and lies.

And while sometimes I wondered about the truth of the documents, the more I read Dylan’s careful prose filled with nuances and an ethic of care, the more I realized that there are important stories in the lives as well. Narratives of the way duplicitous people take advantage of others. Narratives of stereotypes. Narratives of the power of literacy.

Dylan points out the mark that Black people used an x on most of the documents. Narratives of determination. Narratives of remaking who constitutes family. What I found so informative about these documents is how Black people can corral their communities to vouch for them, to support their claims, to give them confidence in their efforts to protect what they have.

Dylan begins the documented legal lives of Black people during the 1830s. This decade also anchors the organized abolitionist movement when Frederick Douglass and others were making written and verbal cases against slavery to the world. Freedom was in the air. But on the ground, enslaved people wanted a receipt for the money that they loaned to white people.

And free Black people wanted their associations to be protected from embezzlers. Debt and credit just like today keep and kept the capitalist system going. I’m interested in knowing why Dylan doesn’t discuss capitalism as he narrates the power of cash in the lives of everyone. I agree with him when he writes, quote, “White southerners cared more about making money and preventing revolts than about keeping slaves away from contracts and property.” End of quote.

During freedom, white lawyers are representing Black people because they need money. For example, as Dylan explains, two lawyers saw a particular quote, “Black family case as a meal ticket, not a crusade” end of quote. Or as Dylan describes quote, “Of course, a lawyer could laugh at stories about Black clients and still take their money” end of quote.

Whites quote, “sometimes short on cash and long on debt, they looked at a Black person and saw something else, a potential buyer.” End of quote. Given all of these IOUs, the credit and the lack of cash, capitalism seemed to me to also be a controlling factor in this history.

Another question that I have for Dylan is at times during the history of slavery, it seems as if the slaves become normalized subjects because of these so-called privileges. I worry about conservatives quoting sentences such as quote, “many slaves, maybe even most of them, got paid incentives for overwork during harvest and planting seasons.” End of quote.

The foundations of overtime work is linked to their ability to pay cash for wagons, mules, and other goods compared to poor whites who usually required credit because they had little cash. And while Dylan follows these sentences with quote, “Slaveholders didn’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts. They did it to save money.” As well as talking and stating that Black people were super exploited.

I still have fears about the manipulation to feed into conservative, troubling arguments. That is, slavery was bad, but not as bad as we have been told because of these so-called privileges. And as Dylan writes, quote, “After all, except for land, few white people had debts and bill– had deeds or bills of sale for their property either.” End of quote.

Lastly, the calculation of free Black people’s wealth could be evidenced that during legal slavery, they were not harmed by racial discrimination. Dylan tells us that in short, the more that free Black people bought, sold, mortgaged, and bequeathed property, the more their civil rights became essential to white people’s civil rights. Dylan is careful at all of these terms to say that given Black people– giving free Black people rights of everyday use didn’t threaten the racial order. But I’m wondering what it did to Black people to know the racial limits in their lives.

We know that– we know that context matters less and less in our contemporary world. And I know we cannot write history based on our current lives. But it’s so hard to ignore. And I’m wondering how you, Dylan, move through this material. And how you struggle to balance quote unquote, “privileges” and quote unquote, “Black wealth” with violence and terror, especially given our divisive anti-Black climate.

I am a historian. I’m a historian of Black women’s history. And I want to conclude that I cannot tell you how much my heart was warmed by the way Dylan incorporates how women experience legal culture sometimes as independent people, and sometimes because of the men in their lives.

Either way, they are there with all of their complexity, using the she/her pronoun when Dylan could have easily said he/him speaks to Dylan’s commitment to recognize Black women’s humanity in the world. Some of the stories are classic. When two Black women brought a bag of nails to the altar to club Minister Payne who bent the rules of the church and women were not allowed to vote.

The sweeping patriarchal ideas that forced former slave– former slave couples into marriage. How family and kinfolk are remade in the courts. All of these stories of family, friends, neighbors, and communities can easily be mapped on to 2023.

I love seeing myself in this book. As Dylan states, quote, “inheritance suits became seminars on the history of Black family,” end of quote. You drop the mic with that one. Congratulations.

You want to go ahead [INAUDIBLE].

[DYLAN PENNINGROTH] Yeah. I’m bowled over. Thank you for these comments. These are just incredibly thoughtful. I’m just going to try and address a couple of the things that you said because I know that there may be questions in the audience. And there may be other opportunities for me to circle back.

And I think, I think I’m going to start with the series of questions that you ended with, Ula, which is about how I tried to balance– I think the way you put it was how to balance privileges with terror and violence? And I will tell you, I struggled early and often with how to write this book so that people who do not mean well would not twist what I had written.

I mean, I went back and forth on individual sentences, even on whole chapters. I think at a certain point, it became clear to me that I would not be able to write the book that I wanted to write or any book at all if I worried too much about what others might do to twist my words. I think I concluded that people were going to twist my words no matter how I wrote. And the only solution would be to not write.

But you have put your finger on one of the things that I did, which is I tried to– and this gets at your question to some extent, Eric. I tried to connect the part of the story that has to do with Black people’s ability to exercise economic privileges or rights. I tried to connect it to the system that was exploiting them.

And I did it– although I didn’t name him explicitly in the text, it’s basically a CRT argument. It’s Derrick Bell’s interest convergence. I sort of smuggled that in there. So in a sense, if conservatives want to come after me and say, it was good for– then maybe I can smile and say, OK, you’re a critical race theorist now.

But I mean, when I talk about things like chain of title, where you have more and more Black people, the two generations after slavery, you see this enormous rise in Black land ownership, 15 million acres by 1910. Each one of those acres is legally part of a chain of title. And anyone who wants to buy that land or anyone who wants to lend money against that land needs to be aware of the chain of title. And if it gets broken, there are problems.

So that implicates white people in Black people’s civil rights. It’s not perfect. Obviously, there were whites who rode around and just took land. But I think that the moments when white violence paused to take account of the legal implications of what they were doing, it doesn’t obviate or negate the violence.

It says something about the system that they were in. And so by the same token enslaved people earning a little bit of money after hours. I start the book with a story about my great great great uncle, Jackson Holcomb, who had a boat and earned money on the side rowing people across the river.

That was good for the system. It was good for master’s bottom line. They spent in the cotton belt. They spent about 20% of their revenues feeding and clothing slaves.

So any time that they allocated to slaves after hours, it’s not like they were cutting slaves work time in the fields. They were simply saying, OK, if you want to stay up until midnight four days a week and work on Sundays, then you can have this. So it’s just this super exploitation that’s starting to sound a little bit like partly an answer to where is the capitalism part of the question. I think that’s where it comes in.

And I think that you’re correct, that I didn’t play it up. I didn’t make it explicit. It’s kind of below the surface of a lot of what I’ve written. But it’s very much there. I firmly believe that a lot of what I’m seeing in this story is not only things that are good for the workings of capitalism, even racial capitalism, but are integral to its functioning.

So I think I’ll just say one last thing to put a point on that last statement. So Jackson Holcomb in Cumberland County, he was able to buy I think it was his first 100 acres of land in gosh, what was it, 1883. And then later, he got wind via another white person who came and told him about a white man named Robert Garnett, who was going bankrupt.

And I’m pretty sure Garnett owned or was connected to the people who owned Jackson Holcomb. So Garnett is going bankrupt. Land is for sale. And this white man comes and tells Jackson Holcomb, you can buy it. And you can buy it cheap because this man’s bankrupt. He needs money now.

It’s like a fire sale. Now, why did he do that? I mean, one structural answer could be, well, it’s good for the system. Another answer could be he knew him, so there’s this story of like personalism where you can have very hostile feelings toward Black people as a race, but not toward this particular Black person. So that could be part of the story.

But then at the end of the day, there’s this element that I think all of us historians are familiar with where you come to the end of your evidentiary rope, and you just don’t know. And so for me, that remains often the land where I have to be careful not to overreach the evidence. Not to read too much into. Leave space for human complexity.

But at the same time, I want to make it clear to readers and maybe clearer than it is in the book that capitalism is at work in so many facets of this story. So I want to open it up.

[WALDO MARTIN] OK. What we’re going to do is pass the mic. So if you have a question, please raise your hand, shout out, do a dance, whatever, however you choose to be recognized. And I know there are some questions because I can feel the energy. I can feel the questions. So just bring it all. OK.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hey, professor. For question, the thing that resonates with me is the archival work that you did. And I’m wondering, can you go a little bit deeper into what that was like? Especially the outreach to the courthouses. Were they like, yeah, you can totally take a look at these records. Don’t get a paper cut. Or are there any apprehension towards after explaining what you were doing?

[DYLAN PENNINGROTH] It’s a great question. So there are two ways that I’ve been thinking about in answer to that question over the past few weeks. So one answer is practically speaking, most of the clerks were fine with me coming in as long as I didn’t get in people’s way. And as long as I didn’t make it seem as though I was getting privileges that some of the working lawyers and title searchers didn’t get.

So they’re wary that these are people who come every day. And I don’t come every day. But most of them, once they figured out what I was doing were fine with it. Some were not. I’ll never know why not.

Sometimes they would kind of use excuses or they would invent things like they’d say, well, you can use these records. But it’s going to cost you $5 for every picture that you take of the docket books. Yeah. I’m not going to say who that was.

But I guess the larger point is, they have enormous discretion over the records. And they’re not an archive. It’s a courthouse. What they do is they process traffic tickets. I heard a lot of gossip about traffic tickets. And they make title searches possible for people.

Now, there is this kind of litigation wing. That’s typically in a separate building. I actually got to talk with some of the working lawyers, including in Cumberland. One knew my great great uncle. So that’s the first answer to the question.

But the second answer, it has to do with my positionality. So I was able to do this kind of work. And I kind of know that I came into the courthouse with certain kinds of privileges that other people didn’t.

So for example, I could drive past midnight to get from one part of Mississippi to another part. And I think it’s because of how I look partly. I was not super worried. I was a little worried. There were times when I was a lot worried when interacting with people who had confederate flags and gun racks and stuff like that.

But there was a certain way in which I could move through the courthouse. I could walk up the courthouse steps and say, I’m doing African-American history. And I would like you– can I get in the back?

And I think I don’t know how they would have reacted if I looked differently, if I was a woman. It’s hard to tell. But that’s always in your mind when you’re a historian and you’re going out into the field to do this kind of thing. So I just wanted to surface that as well.

Hi. Thanks. I wanted to ask maybe a more narrow question. When you were showing the data on those bars of what percentage of cases involved a Black party, I guess. And you said that 8% were like, so I guess 92% were Black defendant, Black plaintiff. But 8% were not.

So I wanted to ask what you saw going on in that 8%? So were they all like Black plaintiff, white defendant? Or was there a mix? And what kind of characterized that?

That’s a great question. It was a mix. And one of the things that I think surprised me a little bit was that of the cases that did cross the color line. Thank you. I appreciate that.


Yeah. Mine does that too. Of the cases that crossed the color line, many of them actually featured a white, sorry, a Black plaintiff and a white defendant. It’s not like all of the cases that crossed the color line involved a white plaintiff and a Black defendant.

So I think if your question is about what characterize the Black-Black cases, I think a fair description would be that sort run through that I mentioned in my initial remarks. With respect to Black plaintiffs and white defendants, it was I think a similar mix of causes of action. I didn’t see very often claims of racial discrimination. In part because that’s not really a cause of action in Mississippi in 1910. You can’t bring a claim like that.

But between the lines, you can sometimes see it. And especially in these cases of duress where– and you talked about the lies that records can tell. One of the big lies, which I think you alluded to was this lie about the ignorant Negro. Which is this trope that a couple of other scholars have talked about where in order for– in a contract case where a white plaintiff is suing a Black defendant. And the Black defendant respondent wants to be out of the contract.

Like you got him to sign away his house. And now, the White plaintiff is saying, I want your house. I want you to follow through and convey the house to me. Sometimes the Black defendant would essentially say, I’m so ignorant. I couldn’t have known what I was doing when I signed this.

And together with the lawyers, they would play up their ignorance. And there’s this one scene where this guy in Mississippi, and he’s saying basically like well, I can’t read this document. And then they bring him his eyeglasses. And he says, well, I can read a little better. But now, I don’t understand what this document says.

He clearly does understand a lot about law. He’s kind of playing up his ignorance in order to get out of this contract. And so that’s a way in which you can see race working in these lawsuits that cross the color line, but don’t challenge white supremacy head-on.

They’re using standard doctrines of contract law– standard defenses like duress or fraud or duty to read to get out of these contracts. But the other part that’s interesting to me is sometimes they use those defenses and variations on them in the cases that are against other Black people. And that’s where things get really weird. It’s a great question.


[AUDIENCE MEMBER] I wonder if there was a moment when you were surprised by what you were finding throughout your research? And I also wonder about the idea of surprise in the very earliest days of people accessing the legal system that, holy cow, we won or got something.

[DYLAN PENNINGROTH] I really like that question. To answer the second question, I think that it was not surprising to white and Black southerners at all when Black people started going to courthouses in 1865. And that’s because of these privileges of slavery. It’s because slaves had privileges that they couldn’t defend in court, but which followed the general logic of property and contract law.

And so when 1865 comes and they become free, and they begin signing contracts to work, not only are they necessary for the South’s economy, this cotton economy to get back on its feet. You need Black people to work. You can’t whip them anymore. You need contract law. You have to recognize them as having this civil right.

Not only that, but also they’re used to seeing Black people make deals that are not contracts, but are bargains that are treated and often as contracts. They’re used to seeing Black people own property. So 1865-1866 doesn’t seem like such a contrast.

But to answer the first part of your question, what was surprising to me? Honestly, it’s how emotional I got reading some of these files. Precisely because of what you said. They’re intimate.

People when they go to court over say like police violence, that’s a certain kind of intimacy, like the intimacy of violence. But there’s a different kind of intimacy when someone is going to court over an inheritance. So this is one case, one of the very first cases I read in Washington DC was an elderly woman named Eliza Brown.

And she was enslaved in Maryland. And she came to DC sometime in the 1860s. And then by 1885, she owns a house and a lot. And she decides to leave it not to her biological children but to another woman, her best friend’s daughter.

And so she does that using a pocket deed. And then her biological nieces show up. They come down from Baltimore. And they’re like, what’s up? That’s ours.

And so in the course of that lawsuit and others like it, one of the things that comes out is the emotion of people saying no, she’s not your family. We’re your family. Or the emotion of describing for the court why should you get the property.

The court says, why should you get the property? Sometimes the answer is because I cared for her as she was dying. And then the court says, well, tell us how you did that? And when I read that testimony, it broke my heart. And yeah, it’s incredible.

Now, wherever books are sold. It’s here.

It’s [INAUDIBLE] or in the library.

It should be. Well, if it’s not in the library, then I’ll walk a copy over there.

It takes them a while.

It takes them a while?

To get it through the system.

It’ll get barcoded soon.


But, yeah, it’s on all– it’s on the evil empire Amazon. And it’s on nicer websites than that.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Do you think this type of analytical framework can be used to analyze other types of race relations in America? Because when you were describing your book, I just thought of myself. I’m Mexican-American. And I could see a similar study happening in the southwest and describing like how other Mexican-Americans or Mexicans, first generation Mexicans saw their legal consciousness. So do you think that could be applied to other types of ethnic studies?

[DYLAN PENNINGROTH] Absolutely. I think so. I think so. I mean, I’ve spent my career studying African-American history. But my instincts tell me there’s no reason why one couldn’t apply some of the approaches, some of the perspectives to other subordinated populations.

And for that matter, to white people. I mean, it’s not like there’s a lot of work out there that looks at white people’s experiences in local courts either. It’s not easy to do. But once you figure out how, there are ways. But I’d love to talk with you about that.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] I was wondering, do you think slave revolts were the beginning of civil rights movement after American independence? And did you use any of those records or narratives within this book? Also, do you see African-Americans as subordinate to the law? Because I get the sense you– the way you vote it seems a little intuitive to African-Americans because you’re African-American. So I just want to get your thoughts.

[DYLAN PENNINGROTH] Repeat the last part of the question. Do I think African-Americans are–

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Like when you said subordinate minority or subordinate race, the way you’re– the language that you use put African-Americans in a category where it’s like they use the law to free themselves. But the law is based and built on subordinating them like keeping them suppressed. So–

[DYLAN PENNINGROTH] Oh, I see what you’re saying. Yeah. No, it’s a great question. So here, for the second part of your question, I’m going to think back to the ways that I’ve been borrowing from legal sociologists, Cal Morrill. They helped me walk through this literature.

I think that you’re right that law tend to subordinate African-Americans, including contract law. So it’s facially neutral. It doesn’t say that– there’s no such thing as the Negro law of contract. But it’s ordinary workings tend to work against certain kinds of people.

The challenge, though, is that precisely because it doesn’t work against African-Americans, you have to figure out how is it disadvantaging African-Americans. And I think that what’s happening is it is perpetuating and enlarging, aggrandizing inequalities that exist outside the courthouse. So there’s this famous article, Why the Haves Always Come Out Ahead and the theory of Marc Galanter.

He’s sort of saying, look, when you go to a courthouse, there are certain kinds of people who are there all the time. They’re repeat players. And they know the lawyers. I saw– these are the people who were around me as I was in the courthouse. They’re doing title searches. They know, they’re like slapping hands with the clerk and so forth.

Then you have these one shot people who might go to court once in their life, if ever. They don’t know everybody. Whether they’re poor or rich matters also. And whether they’re Black matters a lot.

But I think that what matters an awful lot is that they’re just one shot. They’re never going to be back. And the people in the courthouse don’t have to take them seriously quite the same way. So it’s perpetuating and aggrandizing inequalities that exist outside the courthouse. It’s making them worse in many cases.

So when I use the word subordinated, I’m borrowing it from law talk, like subordinated minorities. I don’t mean that they are subordinate people, of course. I mean, that they’re being subordinated in many different spheres that interlock.

And you can see that interlocking effect sometimes in the courthouse. The first part, slave revolts. I didn’t really talk about them in the book. I think that you could make a good case that they are part of a long civil rights movement. I didn’t make that case. Perhaps others have.

[WALDO MARTIN] Vincent Harding. You have brother Vincent up there.

[DYLAN PENNINGROTH] Yeah. So he’s, so he’s talking about this long river where the revolts are part of this freedom struggle. And if civil rights are part of the freedom struggle, then yes, it is part of a civil rights movement.

[WALDO MARTIN] Well, I think– OK, brother. Take us on. Yeah, take us on.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] My question is kind of historiographical. So you talked about the grand narratives of civil rights history and Black legal history more broadly. But it’s usually centered around Black folks trying to be integrated with whites. So did you think about– and clearly, the court cases you’re looking at didn’t have anything to do with that. Did you see this? Did you think about this when writing this? Or can you just share your thoughts about legal history and the idea of integration?

[DYLAN PENNINGROTH] Now, that’s a great question. And I think maybe– the answer that springs to mind about your question is that although desegregation or integration don’t appear explicitly in the sources that I’m using because it’s not a cause of action, you can see traces of that history in the sources because the sources reflect some of the reality that exists outside the courthouse. And a lot of the reality in the rural south in 1910 is that there’s no segregation. People don’t live apart.

In fact, white people want Black people to be living close by so they can have easy access to their services. But then the story of segregation and integration takes these interesting turns when people go to the north. And that’s a story that I think links back to some of my own family’s history. And it connects, it touches in many nuanced ways with the kinds of zoning laws, the kinds of restrictive covenants that people engage with.

But above all, it reveals I think the fragility of legalized segregation. We often think of it as this really incredibly powerful sturdy thing. It was in many ways fragile, which helps explain the violence that often whites used to defend it.

But racially restrictive covenants, they’re kind of not easy to defeat. But they’re really shaky as a matter of property doctrine. And so you can see that playing out in the sources as well. Thank you for that question.

[WALDO MARTIN] Well. And I thank you, my brother. Let’s give him a round of applause. And the book is available. And please get a copy. And somebody want to sponsor something, bring brother Dylan out sell 100 books.


[DYLAN PENNINGROTH] Thank you all for coming. This is great.



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