Written by: Frank Boyett
Ours is a civilization and a country founded on law. That’s what is meant when we pledge allegiance to the flag “and to the republic for which it stands.” The Declaration of Independence was a legal document served on King George III. The U.S. Constitution forms the bones of our country and is the supreme law of the land.
And the law is generally a good thing. Granted, occasionally there are crooked lawyers who defile it and venal judges who corrupt its purpose. But, for the most part, the law protects us. It defines how civilization operates and – ideally – sets the same rules for everyone: How punishment is measured out, how conflicts are peaceably resolved, how marriages are registered, and families are given formal recognition by society.
But the law is not infallible. Laws, in the final analysis, are written by legislators – mere mortal humans.
I’d like to tell you a story about something that happened to me 25 years ago and prompted me to think about this heavy subject. I saw with my own eyes and held in my hands the written proof, how the law failed. It failed at its most basic level to perform its primary purpose: To nurture and protect what is good and decent in human society.
At that time staff members of The Gleaner were working on a special historical edition that published in March 1996. In the process of researching an article for that edition, I was down in the vault of the Henderson County Clerk’s Office looking at old marriage records.
Even at that time I was no stranger to the vault and had long used marriage records. But I ran across something new that day, something I had never seen before. In one of the earliest segregated marriage record books, there is a section that was reserved for Black couples who wished to register in the eyes of the law what had long been recognized by themselves and God.
Most – if not all – of the names on those pages were of people who had been slaves when they committed themselves to one another by “jumping the broom,” a widespread slave custom to demonstrate to their community they were bound together.
The law books at that time did not recognize those unions. Slaves were property. As U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney so infamously phrased it in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, slaves “had no rights that the white man was bound to respect.”
The Civil War rectified that, of course, but it took a few months for the Kentucky General Assembly to catch up – and it did it on Valentine’s Day. On Feb. 14, 1866, the General Assembly passed a law allowing slave marriages to be legalized provided the couple appeared before their county clerk, paid a nominal fee, and declared “that they have been, and desire to continue, living together as husband and wife.”
Once that was done, they received a certificate proving they were legally married and that their children were legitimate.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld that law in 1870, writing that former slaves, once emancipation made them competent to contract marriage, “the highest duty they owed to themselves, to their children, and to morality was to consummate and make perfect a union which had hitherto existed only by reason of the consent and approbation of their owners.”
Those people were already married, of course, because they had pledged themselves to one another before God, their families, and their community. The law just ignored them.
But once Kentucky law finally caught up there was page after page of records in the Henderson County Clerk’s Office reading almost exactly the same. Only the names and figures differed.
“This day Goode Sandefur and Maria Sandefur, free persons of color, appeared before me in my office and stated that they had lived together as husband and wife for the period of about forty-five years and that they desire to continue to live together as husband and wife.”
That particular record was dated May 27, 1875. But there were others, more than 40 couples in all. Most of them had been together 10 to 20 years.
But Fielding and Melinda Soaper had been together for 49 years before the law recognized their marriage. Harvey and Ritta Tyler, Andy and Rhoda Stone, and Dan’l and Phillis Davis had all been bound together 40 years at the time of their registrations. Freeland and Rachel Stites had been together 35 years; George and Mary Letcher 34 years.
I was moved as I leafed through those pages. I am moved yet while I write this. Marriage in modern times is difficult enough. But how many of us would have made that commitment knowing that at any time – at someone else’s whim – our partner could be yanked from us forever?
Then I laid the book aside because it had no bearing on the job I was doing at that moment. But I went home that night and thought about it. And I went to church that Sunday and thought about it some more. I continue to think about it.
This is Black History Month, which also contains Valentine’s Day. It seems an appropriate time to honor and celebrate the love and commitment of these good men and women.