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Georgia Southern Professor Recounts ‘The Most Important Court Case You’ve Never Heard Of’

Jonathan Bryant and Book CoverIt’s one of the most important legal decisions regarding slavery in U.S. history, it happened in nearby Savannah, Georgia, and most people have never heard of it.

Jonathan Bryant, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Georgia Southern University, is bringing national attention to a landmark court case in his recently released book, Dark Places of the Earth: The Voyage of the Slave Ship Antelope. Since its release, the book has been reviewed by a number of media outlets and National Public Radio’s “The Diane Rehm Show” devoted an hour to Bryant and his book on July 15.

“This is a big case, and yet in many ways had been forgotten by historians,” said Bryant. “And that’s one reason I think the book is gaining a little traction.”

The case began in 1820, when the Antelope, a Spanish slave ship, was captured off the coast of Florida. Since the U.S. had outlawed its own participation in the international slave trade, the ship’s captives — almost 300 of them — were considered illegal cargo under American law. However, because slavery was such an integral part of the U.S. economy, the case would make its way to the Supreme Court to decide what should be done with them.

For the next few years, the case bounced around circuit court in Savannah, and went to the Supreme Court three times. Chief Justice John Marshall and his court, many of them slave owners themselves, finally wrote the decision that while slaves might be human beings, by law they are property. It was a decision that shaped American law for the next 35 years.

“And that’s a hellacious decision,” said Bryant. “That in essence says that you can take your property wherever you want to. Slavery can expand westward and it can’t be stopped by the state or the federal governments.”

As for the captives, they were put to work on Georgia farms while the case made its way through the court system, and some of them waited almost eight years to learn their fate. Bryant says these captives were children, many of them between the ages of 5 and 10, and their voices are conspicuously absent from the court records.

“It’s very very frustrating,” he said. “An interpreter is hired numerous times but never once do they record anything said by the captives. The captives themselves had lived in the Savannah area — depending on which one you were — seven to eight years. They learned to speak English, but again, nothing is recorded.”

Bryant first came across the Antelope case in 1999 while searching for class materials that might better engage his students at Georgia Southern, and revisited it for several years before finally devoting himself to research in 2009. The book was released in July by Liveright, a subsidiary of W.W. Norton in New York.

Bryant says that being published by such a noted company was a true stroke of luck, but he always thought the story would attract interest if given a chance.

“It’s a wonderful story of corruption and lies and duplicitous behavior by lawyers — all of those lovely things that we like to read about,” he said.

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