Laws often changed throughout the 1700s and 1800s. In America, each state had its own laws. All of this can sometimes add a gray area to research: what laws were actually in place in what year, and in which state did the laws apply? And when did the laws change?
In the colonial and antebellum eras, only single women and widows could own property and sign contracts. When a woman married, her husband took ownership of her property—unless her family set up a legal settlement before marriage.
When researching for A Slave of the Shadows, my sources led me to believe that a slave owner could, in his or her last will and testament, set slaves free for faithful service. During my many trips to Charleston, South Carolina for research, I found nothing to deny that this was, in fact, the case. So, following extensive research, when writing the ending of my story, I had Olivia give Mammy and Mary Grace their freedom in her will.
However, in my recent studies, I’ve discovered that women weren’t allowed to have wills. Then I came across the article “Married Women’s Property Law: 1800–1850,” written in 1982 by Richard H. Chused of the New York Law School, and realized it may not be as cut and dried as I’d thought.
In 1820 the emancipation of slaves became even more restricted, and slaves could only be freed through an act of the legislature. In 1841 (five to six years after my fictional character Olivia’s death) “The Act to Prevent the Emancipation of Slaves” changed the freeing of slaves by an owner in their last will and testament altogether. My research led me to information stating that in 1850 in Charleston, only two slaves were recorded as earning their freedom through the courts. Slaves had no choice but to try to take their freedom.
In closing, I wanted to note that Olivia, as the sole heir of Livingston, would have inherited all properties (which included slaves) from her father. It’s possible—and my story may reveal more on this in future novels—that Olivia’s father set up a trust or arranged a legal settlement with Charles to protect Olivia’s estate.
Having my novels stay as close to history as possible is of utmost importance to me. I’ve spent months researching and studying documents to make sure I line up with history as accurately as I can without actually living in the time period and with the limited sources I can find.
In A Slave of the Shadows, Mammy was purchased by Charles and Olivia after their marriage. It’s quite possible that Olivia could have had the papers done up that would give Mammy and her daughter freedom upon her death. As an artistic choice, I decided to leave Mammy and her daughter freed upon Olivia’s death.
I’ve post articles I’ve found in my research below, if you are interested in researching for yourself. Thank you for your understanding.