Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 28, 2021

Hopkins History professor analyzes citizenship rights and race in Baltimore

By DEREK MORITZ | February 14, 2019

The Milton S. Eisenhower Library (MSE) hosted Hopkins History Professor Martha S. Jones on Thursday, Feb. 7 for a talk on her most recent book Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America. The book focuses on the struggle of free African-American people in Baltimore from the late 18th century until the start of the American Civil War and the challenges they faced in obtaining citizenship rights.

Jones began working on the book in 2002 and specifically chose to study Baltimore so that she could take a more nuanced look at the factors leading up to the introduction of the 14th Amendment, which was passed after the abolition of slavery and granted citizenship to all freed slaves.

“I wondered: If I came out of that complicated fray and into a specific place where the transition from slavery to freedom was playing out in slow motion over a time when free African Americans were struggling over many decades rather than a few short years over the questions of their citizenships — maybe then I’d be able to tell a different kind of story,” she said.

Jones explained that Baltimore was a particularly significant location because some of the greatest legal scholars studying citizenship lived and worked in the city. She cited the example of Dred Scott v. Sandford, an 1857 Supreme Court case which ruled that freed African-American slaves could never become U.S. citizens. Roger Brooke Taney, the chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time, was a Baltimorean.

Jones began her study in birthright citizenship by visiting the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, Md. There, while searching through records, she found travel permits from the 1840s that were signed off by Taney and pieced together a story about the lives of free African Americans in Baltimore before the Civil War.

Black Codes, laws which were passed after the Civil War, regulated nearly every aspect of the lives of free African Americans, including travel. Free African Americans who wanted to travel to see family or search for work needed to obtain a court-ordered permit.

As a result of these Black Codes, Jones explained that many African Americans faced immense pressure to leave the country in a process known as the colonization movement.

“Colonization... gets traction in the state of Maryland. It’s the only state in which there is public money appropriated to support colonization,” Jones said. “Maryland is the only state which created its own colony called Maryland in Liberia, so free black Baltimoreans are feeling the pressure [to move there].”

Slowly, some free African Americans migrated across the world to places like Canada, Trinidad, Haiti and Liberia. Jones explained that those who remained needed a strategy for survival.

“Former slaves began to take the view that if they comport themselves like people with rights, if they begin to do the sorts of things that citizens are said to do, maybe they will become citizens or at least something very close to it,” she said. “This is where the courthouse comes in.” 

Records show that African Americans were very present in courthouses in pre-Civil War Baltimore. Among other reasons, African Americans sought to use the legal system to extract rights from lawyers and judges that laid the foundation for their becoming citizens.

According to Jones, when a freed African American obtained a travel permit from the court, any challenge to such a permit would be a challenge to the justice system that gave him or her the permit. Thus, when freed African Americans used the legal system to obtain various permits or file lawsuits, they were opposing the Black Codes imposed on them and providing a legal basis for their right to citizenship.

Although the Dred Scott decision stated that all African Americans were not entitled to be citizens, the Maryland State Supreme Court did conclude in Hughes v. Jackson that African Americans do have legal rights within the American court system.

At the time of the decision, John Carroll LeGrand was the chief justice of the Maryland Supreme Court. Jones re-enacted LeGrand’s thought process in the decision.

“[LeGrand] says two things: In the state of Maryland, there are some 90,000 people of color. Our productivity, our prosperity depends on their labor. If we want free men of color to work, they need a way to protect their property, enjoy their wages and enjoy their fruit,” Jones said. “We want them to be laborers, so we will extend them the right to sue or be sued. If I conclude that [African Americans] do not have the right to come into our courts, I will in one grand gesture create 90,000 outlaws in the state.”

Jones noted that LeGrand was no egalitarian figure but rather a practical man who saw a danger in not granting African Americans basic legal rights. The immersion of free African Americans into the legal system before this decision allowed it to come to fruition. 

Decisions such as Hughes v. Jackson laid the foundation and set a precedent for the 14th Amendment, which established birthright citizenship.

Jones ended by noting that the precedent of birthright citizenship has been continually challenged throughout American history, from Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century to the children of Puerto Ricans. And although many groups have faced pressures because of bigotry, the principle of birthright citizenship has been able to insulate them from unlawful removal.

Senior Isabella Altherr enjoyed the perspective offered by Jones. Because she had done her own research on the social history of birthright citizenship, she felt that Jones’ talk helped her see the issue through a different lens.

“It was really interesting to hear from the legal perspective, but Dr. Jones added in a lot of the social history and the narrative to the legal perspective which I really appreciated,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jones wrote a novel. 

The News-Letter regrets this error.

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