Karen Woods Weierman (Languages and Literature) calls herself a stealth historian.
With a background in American Studies, she finds that the world just doesn’t fit in neat little boxes. Her research requires sleuthing in literary history as well as in legal documents, personal papers and museum collections.
At the moment, Weierman is trying to figure out what happened to Med, a six-year-old slave brought to Boston by her New Orleans mistress in 1836.
In August of that year, the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society learned that Med was in the city on her mistress’s family visit. Massachusetts was a free state, and the status of slaves in transit had not yet been settled by the courts.
To be against slavery in Boston during that time was to be an outsider and unpopular. Mobs had broken up meetings of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society the year before. Undaunted, the women went undercover to investigate the Med situation.
“They posed as recruiters for a Sunday school class,” Weierman said. That got them into the home for tea and conversation. Once there, they noted that Med, a slave girl, was indeed in residence.
Armed with this evidence, the women went to a lawyer, who petitioned for a writ of habeus corpus. A judge granted the writ, and the man who held little Med in custody was brought up for trial.
“The court had to decide the connection between geography and liberty,” Weierman said. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that slaves brought to the state by their owners were automatically free.
The ruling did not apply to fugitives. But it did have a broader impact. Shaw’s decision was incorporated into the law of almost every free state and a wave of freedom cases followed.
Thus, little Med was a free child. She did not, however, have much of a chance to enjoy her freedom. Less than two years after Judge Shaw’s ruling, she died in the Samaritan Asylum for Colored Orphans.
The central focus of Wireman’s work is what happened to Med during those two years. A legal triumph seems a personal tragedy for one little girl. But was it?
Her 2009-10 sabbatical project is entitled The Case of the Slave-Child, Med: The Geography of Freedom in Antebellum Boston. The research will entail work in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, the Boston Public Library and the Museum of African American History.
“I plan to let the sources determine the scope and structure of this book project,” said Weierman, who joined the Worcester State College faculty in 2000.
The book project itself got a boost from a 2008-09 mini-grant from the college.
“I’d been invited to present a paper last summer at Transatlantic Women: Nineteenth Century American Women Writers in Great Britain, Ireland and Europe, an academic conference in Oxford, England,” she said. “The mini-grant made travel to that conference possible.”
As she prepared her conference paper on Lydia Maria Childs Political Thought in the 1830s, she discovered Med.
“Conference participants were enthusiastic about the case of Med,” Weierman said. “Many had heard of her and had lots of questions. They suggested that there might be a book project here.”
The case of Med appeals not only to scholars, but also to a wider range of people.
“I spoke with about 125 Worcester High School students last April in the Humanities Scholars Collaborative,” she said. “This group got me really excited about Med and the possibilities of more research about her.”
In addition, the Boston Public Library invited her to present her Med scholarship on Feb. 17 at 5:30 p.m. in the McKim Building in conjunction with the library’s exhibit Right and Wrong in Boston: The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, which is open until March 31.
Of course, the story of Med is more than the story of what happened to a freed slave child. Weierman hopes her sleuthing will flesh out the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and its legal actions, the role of the Boston activist black community during this time, the legal careers of the various lawyers and judges involved in the case, and the coverage of the case not only in the anti-slavery press, but also in the mainstream press in Louisiana and the African American press.
“I’m looking at this one event from various perspectives,” she said. “It’s a micro history.”
To prepare for her sabbatical leave, Weierman is applying for grants to support her archival research.
“I’m an archival detective, and I need to make a specific case for why I want access to a particular collection,” she said. “Having to articulate the project to these various audiences is really valuable.”
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