The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

"The Case of the Slave Child, Med": Lunch Talk Recap

Last Wednesday (16 December), MHS research fellow Karen Woods Weierman gave “concluding remarks” about the research that has brought her to a second fellowship here at the MHS: an examination of the 1836 legal case Commonwealth vs. Aves, or “the case of the slave-child Med” as it was commonly referred to. Med was a seven-year-old enslaved girl brought by her Southern owners to Boston when they came North to visit family. Anti-slavery activists discovered Med’s status and brought suit against the family claiming that since Med was on free soil it was unlawful to keep her enslaved, even though the family was only “in transit.” Judge Lemuel Shaw, who heard the case, ultimately decided in favor of freeing Med, and the case remained an influential legal decision until the Dred Scott decision of 1857.   

Karen Weierman’s work at the Historical Society this fall was comprised of four parts. She built on her work at the Boston Public Library, which holds the records of the Boston Female Anti-slavery Society (BFASS); she attempted to piece together the involvement of the Boston African-American community in Med’s case – a process that has involved a lot of archival detective work!; she delved deeper into the legal history of the case, with its cast of “usual suspects” who appear time and time again in slave transit cases of this period; and finally, she hopes to consider the literary dimension of the case – including the role played by such literary and abolitionist figures as Maria Chapman and Lydia Maria Child.

Her time at the MHS, Karen reported, has been helpful in clarifying what will be framed in the lens of her book project. Currently, she is hoping to maintain a tight focus on Med’s case and the surrounding decade, starting with an 1832 case that was the first slave-child case and ending with the 1842 Latimer case, which shifted the nation’s focus from slave transit cases to fugitive slave laws in the lead-up to the Civil War. While the case of Med has not gone entirely un-examined in the historiography, the attention it has received this far has been minor and no one has yet done an interdisciplinary study that seeks to combine local, Boston history, legal scholarship, and literary scholarship: this is a gap that Karen is hoping to fill with her work.

During the Q&A period, several audience members questioned what Med’s owners were thinking bringing a slave North to a city like Boston, which was known for its abolitionist activities. There was also a great deal of discussion about the way that the discourse of motherhood was shared by both the pro- and anti-slavery sides: those who argued for Med to remain with her owners suggested that anti-slavery activists would be ripping Med’s family apart by keeping her in the North while her mother remained enslaved in Louisana; abolitionists countered by pointing out that Med’s family was already torn apart by slavery and that it was the duty of the owners to free Med’s mother who could travel North to be reunited with her daughter. Both sides, in other words, were positioning themselves as “protectors of children” and the family.

Sadly, Med died before her eighth birthday in an orphan home, set free but with her custody remaining murky. The reason for her death remains unclear, but her story vanishes from the antislavery discourse given its less-than-triumphal end.  I look forward to seeing how Karen brings her back from obscurity and re-directs our focus toward this legal and social turning-point in the history of anti-slavery law.

permalink | Published: Friday, 18 December, 2009, 1:48 PM


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