Slavery and the Law in the Old South

An excerpt from the original document, State v. Nathan, a Slave, Papers of Judge Peter W. Gray, MS417, folder 2, wrc01466, Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.

One of the Woodson Research Center’s original documents is highlighted in a new module entitled “Slavery and the Law in the Old South” written by John Marks, a graduate student in Rice’s Department of History.

The item features a Houston slave named Nathan being tried for murder in the Walker County (Texas) District Court in 1855, with Judge Peter Gray presiding. At that time,  “the courts generally treated slaves as persons when tried for criminal offenses, and as property during civil trials.  This module highlights a document that offers a window into the somewhat contradictory nature of enslaved people’s interactions with the legal system.

Judge Peter W. Gray’s instructions to the jury [see full version as a pdf ] before deliberation during the 1855 trial of Nathan, a slave living in Houston – one item in Judge Gray’s personal papers housed at the Woodson Research Center [see finding aid to the full collection] – highlights the difficulty in dealing with the enslaved as both persons and property, as well as this adherence to procedure.

The State of Texas accused Nathan of murdering George Thomason, a white man. Despite Nathan’s enslaved status, however, Judge Gray instructed the jury that “[t]he prisoner though a slave is entitled by law to the same fair and impartial trial as if he were a white citizen and the same rules of evidence and principles of law are to be applied to the consideration and decision of this case as to that of any other person.” Judge Gray continued, further instructing the jury that “[i]f from the evidence you are satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused did kill George Thomason…then you will find him ‘guilty,’ but if not satisfied of this beyond a reasonable doubt then Not Guilty.”

Read the full module online to learn how this case was resolved and for links to related materials at the Woodson Research Center.

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