“A Troubled Past” and the Meanings of Breaking the Law

Adam CrosswhiteAdam Crosswhite. (Photo: Seeking Michigan, Michigan Historical Center)

In early August, St. Louis County police officers shot eighteen-year-old African American Tyrone Harris, Jr. during protests in memory of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man whom an officer from the same force killed in 2014. The Washington Post described Harris as a young man with a “troubled past.” That phrase, so often reserved for those deemed to be on the wrong side of the law, obscures long and complex histories of individuals, groups, and nations. It frames arrest, incarceration, or violent death, as the logical ends of a person’s own poor choices.

Writing at Jezebel, Kara Brown placed Harris within the longer history of black Americans trying to survive in a nation that has so often designed to destroy them, and she encouraged black people to continue to live. “So I say this: Burn down the stores. Sag your pants. Blast your music. Protest. Write. Sing. Dance. Ace their tests. Beat them at their own game. Let America know that we are here and we are alive right now and forever.” Why would Brown embrace lawbreaking alongside a range of acts that may seem more reasonable? We might understand that statement differently if we acknowledge two things: black people have always lived in a nation of unequal laws, and the meanings of lawbreaking are different in particular contexts.

In 1848, Adam Crosswhite made these points very clearly. Crosswhite, who was tall and thin and described as “a bright mulatto man, about forty-five years of age,” stunned observers when he walked into a crowded Detroit courtroom on December 6, 1848. Crosswhite and his family had fled slavery in Kentucky in 1843, only to have agents of their owner, Francis Giltner, discover and arrest them in Marshall, Michigan, in the spring of 1847. Giltner’s son and two other slave catchers attempted to seize the Crosswhites at their home, but a crowd of local abolitionists prevented the arrest and led the black family to Canada. Giltner then sought damages from the abolitionists in a civil suit. And so Adam Crosswhite returned to Michigan and took the stand to testify against the man who owned him.

Crosswhite’s testimony was brief. Presumably, he had agreed to aid the abolitionists with testimony that diminished their role in rescuing the black family. If the abolitionists had not technically rescued the fugitives, then they had not violated the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. A news report suggested the kind of vagueness that Crosswhite may have employed to shield the men who had helped free his family: he “came to this State [i.e. Michigan] in 1843”; he had “moved thence to Canada in 1847.” Still, all present understood the terrible danger in which his appearance at the trial put him. “The Courthouse,” the reporter noted, “was literally crammed with people of color.” As soon as Crosswhite finished his testimony, a number of those black observers rushed towards the stand, ushered him out of the courtroom, and led him south across the Detroit River, back into Canadian freedom.

The people who escorted Adam Crosswhite out of a Detroit courtroom in 1848 performed a particularly vivid act of lawbreaking, in a courtroom, in front of dozens of witnesses. And the result of the case underlined the significance of that act. The presiding judge instructed the jury that “there seems to be no doubt of the right of the plaintiff to the services of the fugitives,” and the jury agreed, awarding Francis Giltner $1,900 in damages. But Crosswhite’s defenders rejected that decision. They announced publicly that they were not beholden to the laws that undergirded the ruling. They denied that this courtroom was a place in which justice could be done.

A group of black activists met the next evening at a Detroit church and explained the second liberation of the fugitive from Kentucky. The judge had asserted that slavery was the law of the land, a decision, they said, that “deprived us of all protection and security in our lives, liberties, and in the pursuit of happiness.” Only a broken justice system would uphold a system of racial exclusion and exploitation. Many of those activists had themselves “worn the galling chains of slavery,” and it is likely that a number of them had, like Crosswhite, broken the law in order to be free. They wanted “to be a peaceable and sober portion of the community,” and they were willing to “abide by the constitution and laws of this and all other states,” but only those “which recognize no slavery within their borders.” The injustice of human bondage obligated them to resist at all costs. “Live or die, sink or swim, we will never be taken back into slavery.”

The multiple and illegal liberations of the Crosswhites had meaning well beyond that family’s freedom. The Crosswhites rejected the idea that black people were comfortable in enslavement, and they challenged the slave owner’s claim to his absolute authority over their bodies. But their and their supporters’ willingness to violate the law called into question the legal system itself. Indeed, the Crosswhites and their supporters made claims about what the law should be.

Lawbreaking as protest is a declaration that justice cannot be found in society as it exists. Broken windows and damaged storefronts are not simply broken windows and damaged storefronts. They emerge from destructive acts, to be sure, but those acts have meaning to perpetrators and to witnesses that we dismiss at our peril. In the nineteenth century, it was powerful for people to see and to say that the Crosswhites were not simply lawbreakers with “troubled pasts.” Rather, they broke the law because of the nation’s troubled past, a past that denied black Americans the fruits of their labor, endangered their families, and excluded them from the legal community. Adam Crosswhite and his family refused to be bound by Francis Giltner or by the laws of a nation that said they were property. Their freedom demanded that they break the law.

When Kara Brown encouraged black Americans not only to sing, or to dance, or to succeed, but also to burn stores, she made a provocative claim in search of provocative actions. She called for black people to live fully, to reject a set of structures that have so often conspired to marginalize and destroy them. Amidst uprisings in Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere, in the months that have passed since the death of Michael Brown, some observers have criticized black people for perpetuating “senseless” violence in their communities. Rioting, it has been said, will not break down the structures of inequality. Yet the same critique might have been leveled at Adam Crosswhite and his abettors. They understood that they could do little about a court that would enforce Francis Giltner’s title to his property in black bodies but they refused, in spite of the law, to return those bodies to slavery.

A version of this article originally appeared at African American Intellectual History Society.

About the Author

Christopher Bonner

Christopher Bonner is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is at work on a manuscript that examines black activists' work to create American citizenship before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Originally from Chesapeake, VA, he earned his B.A. from Howard University and Ph.D. from Yale University.

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  1. I believe the justice for the Giltner v. Gorham case was also the author of the dissenting opinion for Dred Scott (Justice John McLean).

  2. Justice John McLean, the presiding judge of Giltner v. Gorham (4 McLean 402, 6 West. Law J. 49, 1848) was also the dissenting judge in the Dredd Scott case. Additionally, he was also an abolitionist who became an anti-slavery Republican the same year that party was formed, 1854, running as presidential candidate in 1856 & 1860, losing to Abraham Lincoln

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