Matilda Derrick, Lucy Derrick, Louisa Derrick, & Matilda Derrick v. George Mason & Alexander Moore

United States. Circuit Court (District of Columbia) - Washington (D.C.)
United States. Supreme Court - Washington (D.C.)

Claim for Freedom Made

Importation Violation

Outcome

Verdict for Defendant October 1822

Granted New Trial October 1822

Verdict for Plaintiff June 13, 1823

Appealed by Defendant August 4, 1823

Judgment Reversed January 1827

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Case Narrative

On October 2, 1822, Matilda Derrick filed a petition for freedom on behalf of herself and her children, Lucy, Louisa, and Matilda, against George Mason and Alexander Moore. She argued that they were "entitled to their freedom" and "all of the privileges of free blacks." In 1792, the slaveholder James Craik took Matilda from Maryland to Fairfax, Virginia. Under the Virginia law of 1785 (chapter 77), he was required to take an oath within sixty days that he intended to permanently reside in Virginia, and no slave could be brought into the state for more than one year unless the oath was taken. Matilda alleged that Craik never took the oath, yet held her in bondage in Virginia for over twenty years. After Craik's death in 1814, they were passed by will to family members who took them into Washington, D.C. Derrick brought her case in Washington, D.C., where she was confined in the county jail, presumably as a runaway from Mason and Moore. The jury trial found for the defendants but a new trial was granted. On the second trial the jury found for the petitioners. The Court had instructed the jury that slaveholder defendants "must produce competent testimony to prove that the terms and conditions of the proviso had been compiled with, and in the absence of all testimony, no presumption can arise from lapse of time, to supply the defect of the testimony." The defendant slaveholders appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1827. The high court reversed the judgment. The majority ruling stated that even though the defendants could not produce "positive testimony that the oath had been taken according to the law," the lapse of twenty years and continued "possession" of the enslaved persons meant that the court should "presume, that the oath had been taken in the prescribed time."

Commentary

Names

William Cranch's Reports of Cases Civil and Criminal in the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, from 1801 to 1841 referred to nearly all African American plaintiffs using only their first name: in this case "Negro Matilda." The practice served to hide kinship and family networks from the legal record and to denigrate African American plaintiffs. These legal texts were cited throughout the nineteenth century and became the definitive rendition of each case. Because Cranch was concerned only with publishing case reports on matters of law or procedure, his compilations were neither a complete record of the business of the court nor a complete representation of the matters at issue in any individual case. Matilda Derrick's petition for freedom went on appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court reports for the Supreme Court continued Cranch's practice, referring to her only as "Matilda, a negress." These editorial decisions, produced and disseminated in the form of a definitive legal compilation, a printed and bound record, rendered African American family relationships invisible.

Virginia Act of 1785, chapter 77

This act, passed again in December 1792, was unambiguous in its intention to bar the importation of slaves to the state: "No person shall henceforth be a slave in Virginia, except such as were so on the first day of this Assembly and the descendants of the females of them. Slaves hereafter brought in and kept one year shall be free." The second paragraph reiterated and clarified that even slaves brought for months at a time, "so long at different times as shall amount to one year," would be freed. Paragraph four provided the sole exception: "that nothing in this act contained shall be construed to extend to those who may incline to remove from any of the United States and become citizens of this, if within sixty days after such removal he or she shall take the following oath before some justice of the peace of this commonwealth:

I, A.B. do swear, that my removal into the state of Virginia was with no intent of evading the laws fro preventing the further importation of slaves, nor have I brought with me any slaves, with an intention of selling them, nor have any of the slaves which I have brought with me been imported from Africa, or any of the West India Islands, since the first day of November, one thousand seven hundred and seventy eight. So help me GOD."

(A Collection of All Such Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia of a Public & Permanent Nature, as are Now in Force: Comprising the First Volume of the Revised Code, 1812, pp. 261-262.)