Legal Issues During Chesnutt's Life
(This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on Chesnutt)
Charles Chesnutt lived during a very peculiar time (1858-1932).
Chesnutt was a young boy during the Civil War. Life was rough and
unfair for people of color especially those with black blood. Those
with even a drop of black blood were mistreated and were rarely,
if ever, treated fairly. The following are a few of the court cases
from the United States Supreme Court that occurred during Chesnutt's
lifetime. They hold some significance to Chesnutt's literary works
in one form or another. (Some contain the full text of the case
from the US Supreme Court while others contain detailed summaries.)
Prigg v. Pennsylvania: This case questions the constitutionality of the Pennsylvania Personal Liberty Law. The plantiff, Edward Prigg was charged with kidnapping after he tried to return a runaway slave to the owner. It relates to Chesnutt's story "The Passing of Grandison" in that Grandison, a slave, helped himself as well as his family escape to Canada where they became free persons. (The link contains a detailed account of Prigg v. Pennsylvania.)
Ableman v. Booth: This case deals with an abolitionist who helps a slave to freedom and so is charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Acts. He appealed to the state Supreme Court and was released. The case was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court by U.S. Marshall who arrested the abolitionist. This case is also related to "The Passing of Grandison" because the story talks about abolitionist trying to help free slaves which was what happened with Booth (the abolitionist of course). (The link contains a detailed account of Ableman v. Booth.)
News: This is from a newspaper clipping during Chesnutt's time. It is a short account of a trial from the United States Supreme Court.