In Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights, historian Dylan Penningroth points to the journey towards civil rights for Black Americans beginning “in the fields and cabins of slaves.” Here, in the thick of Antebellum slavery, slaves crafted a knowledge of the law through acts such as accumulation and claims of property, which Penningroth deems “the legal lives of slaves.” These acts extended through the tumults of Reconstruction as free people married; bought, sold, and bequeathed land; and paid taxes at the county courthouses.
Before the Movement‘s main claim is simple, yet revolutionary: before 1950, African Americans had vibrant legal lives. Through four chronological historical moments–slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the movement era–Penningroth boldly uncovers the untold story of Black legal lives before the advent of the civil rights movement. The result is an extension of the timeline of the long civil rights movement, joining scholars such as Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and Charles M. Payne.
This book was birthed after 20 years spent in dusty courthouse basements across four states and Washington, D.C. These deed books, marriage licenses, and court proceedings were written in scribbled script with often indecipherable terminology and an inconsistent indication of race. They focus on varying moments of property loss and gain, as well as marriages and divorces and deaths, illuminating the ways Black people’s intimate lives of love and loss were integrated within their relationship to the law.
Penningroth and several research assistants diligently worked through the source base, discovering a deep tradition of Black legal knowledge beginning in 1830, over a hundred years before Brown v. Board, the traditional marker of the start of the civil rights movement. Spanning over fourteen hundred civil cases, Before the Movement crafts a robust story using primary sources such as sermons, newspapers, diaries. The rich and intimate archive seeps through each page as Penningroth’s astute storytelling skills transfix courthouse documents into three-dimensional narratives of love, loss, and everyday Black life.
Penningroth’s storytelling becomes even more vibrant as he intertwines important historical moments with his own dynamic family history, such as the daring story of his ancestor Thomas Holcomb. In 1865, during the dusk of the Civil War, his enslaved ancestor Thomas received money from Confederate soldiers for ferry rides on the boat he owned. Though Holcomb had no rights and would have had no legal recourse if the soldiers didn’t pay, he was protected by shared community understandings of the law encompassed within the legal tradition of “associational privilege.”
Whereas Before the Movement highlights that it was fairly common for enslaved people to own property, Penningroth’s first book, The Claims of Kinfolk, refers to this network as an internal economy, one which is greatly dependent on kinship relationships. This internal economy and systems such as slave-led plantation courts shaped the lives of enslaved peoples during and after slavery, providing exposure to legal rules and principles that became useful during Reconstruction. However, as Penningroth cautions readers, we should resist understanding their accumulation of property as an act of resistance to white domination. This critical stance opposes the impulse of liberal individualism to locate these acts within a framework of market forces. Instead, enslaved people’s utilization of contracts and the law of property proves Black people’s deep relationship to the law began under slavery, and both property and contracts law were central to how Black Americans began to explore civil rights.
Overall, the lasting impact of Before the Movement will be its centralization of often sidelined contours of Black life, such as how Black people loved and experienced pleasure, faith, and grief through the robust records of Black legal lives. Black lives matter not because of their relation to white oppression, but on their own terms. As Penningroth writes: “In this history, Black people—not race relations—are the center of gravity.”
Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights
By Dylan C. Penningroth
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Published September 26, 2023