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Forret awarded Cromwell Fellowship

Jeff Forret, professor of history at Lamar University and author of four books on the topic of slavery, has been awarded the selective William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Research Fellowship for continued work on his next book, Williams’ Gang: A Slave Trader, His Cargo, and Justice in the Old South.

Dr. Jeff ForretThe $5,000 award will assist Forret in the completion of his research on Williams’ Gang, a legal history of the domestic slave trade as viewed through Washington, D.C. slave trader William H. Williams, who operated a slave pen within sight of the U.S. Capitol.“I’m looking at the slave trading career of William H. Williams and how it intersects with the law,” Forret said. “In particular, I’m focusing on a case which surrounded Williams’ purchase of 27 slaves – all of them sentenced to death – out of the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond in 1840. At the time, convicted slaves could have their sentences commuted by the governor, but only if they were to be transported outside of the United States.”

According to Forret, Williams purchased the slave convicts, agreeing to sell them out of the country. He placed them aboard a slaving vessel and sent them, via the coastwise domestic slave trade, to New Orleans. There, Williams was arrested for violating a Louisiana state law prohibiting the introduction of slave criminals. In his defense, Williams claimed that he was conveying the slaves to the Republic of Texas, a foreign country in 1840.

“A lot of people envision the domestic slave trade as bodies chained together in shackles being led from place to place on land, but many neglect to realize the extent of the waterborne domestic slave trade, long after U.S. participation in the transatlantic slave trade had been made illegal in 1808,” Forret said. “But the domestic slave trade took place on ships right along the coastline of the United States.”

Williams served a year in the Orleans Parish jail and sued unsuccessfully for the return of his enslaved cargo. In the 1850s, he petitioned Louisiana’s governor and had the slaves returned to him. The legal battles over the value of the Williams’ slaves concluded before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1869, eleven years after Williams’ death and four years after the abolition of slavery. The court ruled in favor of Williams’ heirs.

“Certainly this is not ‘justice’ properly understood. It is more a tale of Southern injustice,” Forret said. “But the story I have here says a lot about how slavery and the law were interwoven.”

Cromwell Fellowships are intended to support rising stars in American legal history, with an emphasis on the colonial and early national periods in United States history. Often given to professors of law, the award is sometimes also given to historians with a special interest in the law, such as Forret. The Foundation has supported the publication of legal records as well as historical monographs.

The award, presented at the American Society for Legal History's conference Oct. 31, will allow Forret to complete research in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia.

“I’m very grateful. After I finish my last bit of research with this fellowship, I should be able to sit down and begin to write the book,” he said.

Other institutions represented by this year’s Cromwell Fellowship recipients include the University of Pennsylvania, Duke, UC Berkeley, Princeton and the law schools at Emory University and the University of Virginia.

A social historian specializing in southern history and slavery, Forret joined Lamar University in 2005 after earning his B.A. from St. Ambrose University, his M.A. from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and his Ph.D. from University of Delaware.

In addition to U.S. history surveys, Forret teaches courses on the Old South, slavery, the early republic, antebellum America and race and sex in American history, among others. Forret serves as the graduate director for the history department.