How Massachusetts slave Kwaku Walker’s lawsuit caused the abolition of slavery in the 1780s

Mildred Europa Taylor Dec 12, 2018 at 08:22am

December 12, 2018 at 08:22 am | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Associate Editor

December 12, 2018 at 08:22 am | History

Slaves in the cotton field -- Photo: endslaverynow.org

It has been documented that in the 18th century, enslaved blacks were longing for freedom, especially during the political debates ahead of the American Revolution, a colonial revolt that took place between 1765 and 1783.

The American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies who would later win their independence from Great Britain had argued ahead of the Revolution that slavery was immoral, with writers such as James Otis (1764) stressing that the colonists were by the law of nature free born, extending his argument to all men, whether white or black.

These Revolutionary arguments would soon be picked up by enslaved and free blacks in Massachusetts to argue for their freedom as they submitted several petitions to the colonial governor, legislature and later state legislature, in the 1770s, demanding the end of slavery.

Although these petitions were not granted, a new state constitution introduced in 1780 provided a leeway for several cases to be heard that would eventually lead to the end of slavery in Massachusetts.

“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness,” was the argument made in the first article of the constitution and lawyers against slavery jumped on this to fight for freedom of their clients, reports the Royall House & Slave Quarters organisation.

This gave birth to a series of cases including the pioneering Kwaku Walker judicial case that successfully challenged the legality of slavery in Massachusetts based on the state constitution. Although chattel slavery continued to exist in Massachusetts, the Kwaku Walker decision indicated that it would no longer be supported by the state courts, writes PBS.

Kwaku Walker, who sued and won his freedom, was born in central Massachusetts near the town of Barré in 1753 to slaves Mingo and Dinah who were Ghanaian-born. Sometimes referred to as Quock or Quaco, his actual name was Kwaku, a traditional name of the Akan people from Ghana which means a boy born on Wednesday.

Kwaku’s family was then working for James Caldwell of Worcester County, Massachusetts, who promised to give Kwaku his freedom at the age of 25. When Caldwell died, Kwaku was ten years old and Caldwell’s widow renewed the promise of her husband and even reduced the age to 21.

In 1772, at the age of 19, Caldwell’s widow, who had then remarried Nathaniel Jennison of the nearby town of Barré, died making it difficult for Kwaku to attain his freedom when he reached 21 because Jennison wouldn’t allow him to go.

Not able to bear it any longer, Kwaku ran away from Jennison in 1781 at the age of 28 and began working on a nearby farm belonging to Seth and John Caldwell – brothers of his late master, James Caldwell.

Jennison immediately asked that Kwaku returned but the young man refused, saying he was a free man. This forced Jennison and some of his workers to march to the farm Kwaku was working on, attacked him “and threw him down and struck him several violent blows upon his back and arm with the handle of a whip” before dragging him back to Barré and locking him in a barn, an article by Slate indicated.

Kwaku escaped under unknown circumstances and within a few days, he filed a suit against Jennison for assault and battery, hiring the ablest attorney in the county, Levi Lincoln. Jennison responded by filing a suit against the Caldwell brothers for interfering in the use of his property, with arguments that they had enticed Walker away for their own benefit. These events led to three trials, two civil and one criminal, and these would help determine the future of slavery in Massachusetts.

On June 12, 1781, the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas heard the two civil cases – Jennison v. Caldwell and Quock Walker v Jennison.

According to Blackpast.org, in the Jennison v. Caldwell case, Jennison argued that the Caldwell brothers had enticed away his employee Walker. The court ruled in Jennison’s favour awarding him 25 pounds, a decision that was later appealed.

In the Quock Walker v. Jennison case, the jury found that Kwaku was “a Freeman and not the proper Negro slave” of Jennison, and awarded him 50 pounds in damages. This was after his lawyers had argued that the concept of slavery was contrary to the bible and the new Massachusetts Constitution (1780).

Jennison appealed the decision but this was dismissed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in September 1781 after Jennison failed to appear and his lawyers did not submit the needed court papers. The Caldwell brothers won their appeal as a jury also ruled that Walker was a free man and hence the defendants had the right to employ him.

A third case was filed by the Massachusetts Attorney General against Jennison in September 1781 called Commonwealth v. Jennison for the criminal assault and battery of Kwaku. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts heard the case when the trial began in April 1783 with arguments by Jennison’s attorney that Kwaku was a runaway slave and that the 1780 state constitution did not specifically prohibit slavery.

Kwaku’s lawyers, however, maintained that the Massachusetts Constitution made slavery illegal in 1780, arguing that Jennison had attacked a free man based on testimony that Jennison was aware that Walker’s former master had promised him freedom once he reached the age of 25.

The court accepted the argument by Kwaku’s lawyers and “instructed the jury that whether Walker had been freed or not was irrelevant because slavery was no longer constitutional.” The jury convicted Jennison who was fined 40 shillings.

Historians have since credited the Kwaku Walker case with the abolishing of slavery in Massachusetts while others viewed it as the turning point of emancipation in Massachusetts although there are other mentions of Elizabeth Freeman, who filed a similar suit to demand freedom during the same period.

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