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WVU professor wins fellowships to research 19th century court cases

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A West Virginia University professor researching and writing about 19th century court cases involving African American litigants is receiving national support.

WVU Department of History assistant professor Kimberly Welch has won a $150,000 National Science Foundation Law and Social Sciences grant to support her research for an upcoming book.

She also has been awarded a $50,000, year-long fellowship from the Newberry Library, funded by the Monticello College Foundation Fellowship for Women and the National Endowment for the Humanities; an American Academy of Arts and Sciences Fellowship ($35,000); and an NEH Summer Stipend Fellowship ($6,000).

Welch's book, "Black Litigants: Rethinking Race and Power in the American South, 1820-1860," is a historical and socio-legal study of free and enslaved African Americans' use of the local courts in the antebellum American South.

Welch's project investigates unpublished and rapidly deteriorating lower court records from the Natchez district of Mississippi and Louisiana between 1820 and 1860 in which free blacks and slaves sued whites and other African Americans.

"These are people who are not supposed to be in the legal record at all, namely because they lack the legal standing to sue in court," Welch said. "What is more, this is a place where slavery was deeply entrenched and violently defended, and we don't expect them to be able do this."

Welch said Southern lawmakers expended substantial effort to foreclose African Americans' participation in the legal system, "yet despite the limitations they faced, free blacks and slaves sued in court all the time."

"I've found that African Americans sued whites and other blacks to enforce the terms of their contracts, recover unpaid debts, recuperate back wages, and claim damages for assault," she said. "They also sued in conflicts over cattle, land, slaves, and other property, for their freedom and for divorce, and to adjudicate a number of other disagreements."

Research on this topic is difficult, however.

"That is part of the reason I think the NSF choose to fund the project," said Welch. "None of the records are published or in any traditional archive. They are hidden away in the basements of local county courts. And they are rotting, falling apart, and handwritten, making them difficult to read and interpret. Working with them is like learning a new language."