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UMich Law Professor Rebecca J. Scott to discuss Unlawful Power: Two Moments in the Creation of Property in Persons


Photo by Lin Jones

Rebecca J. Scott, the Charles Gibson Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Law at the University of Michigan will deliver a lecture on Wednesday, March 6, 2013, at Yale Law School. The lecture, entitled “‘Unlawful Power’: Two Moments in the Creation of Property in Persons,” is co-sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale and Yale Law School. It begins at 4:30 p.m. in the Sterling Law Building, Room 129, and is free and open to the public.

In the lecture, Professor Scott will ask: What is the precise process by which law came to recognize a claim of property in a person, enabling the powers attaching to a right of ownership to be lawfully exercised? Building upon judicial and notarial records from early nineteenth-century New Orleans, Rebecca Scott develops the stories of the girl named Sanitte and the young woman named Adélaide Durand, both of whom had become legally free during the Haitian Revolution. Upon arrival as war refugees in Louisiana, each faced the prospect of enslavement under U.S. law. In the case of Sanitte, the task was accomplished, and she would be sold and then re-sold five times between the ages of 16 and 19. Adélaide Durand, by contrast, managed to defend her own freedom through a sequence of legal proceedings, drawing on an ingenious reading of the civil law concept of prescription. Scott argues that the experiences of these women, and the pattern of exercise of "unlawful power" over them, provide a glimpse into the intricacy of the relation between law and slavery, as well as certain lessons for the understanding of contemporary slavery in the world of the twenty-first century.                 

Professor Scott’s most recent book, co-authored with Jean M. Hébrard, Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation (Harvard University Press, 2012), traces one family's interaction with law and official documents across five generations, from West Africa to the Americas to Europe. Freedom Papers has recently been awarded the 2012 Albert Beveridge Book Award in American History and the James Rawley Book Prize in Atlantic History, both from the American Historical Association. Her previous book, Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), won the Frederick Douglass Book Prize awarded by the Gilder Lehrman Center. Among Professor Scott's recent articles are "Under Color of Law: Siliadin v. France and the Dynamics of Enslavement in Historical Perspective," in Jean Allain, ed., The Legal Understanding of Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2012); "Paper Thin: Freedom and Re-enslavement in the Diaspora of the Haitian Revolution," Law and History Review (November 2011); and "Public Rights, Social Equality, and the Conceptual Roots of the Plessy Challenge," Michigan Law Review (2008). She teaches courses on civil rights and the boundaries of citizenship in historical perspective, as well as the law in slavery and freedom.

Professor Scott received an A.B. from Radcliffe College, an M.Phil in economic history from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D in history from Princeton University. She has held the Guggenheim Fellowship and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.