State v. Charles, a Slave
About This Case
Many antebellum cases before Florida’s Territorial Court of Appeals and Supreme Court involved individuals who left little evidence of their lives in the historical record. This is especially true for cases involving slaves.
In 1847, the Florida Supreme Court considered the case of Charles, a slave, v. State. Charles stood convicted of assaulting and raping Zelpha Pennington. Although not specified in the case file, Zelpha was likely related to Charles’ master, Henry Pennington.
This case demonstrated some of the procedural problems facing Florida’s early courts in relation to slaves, slavery, and the law. John Coleman, counsel for Charles, filed a “motion of arrest of judgment” in opposition to the verdict because Zelpha was not specifically described as a “white woman” in documents brought before the Hamilton Circuit Court in Jasper in 1841. This error appears to be the reason for the case advancing to the Florida Supreme Court from Hamilton County.
Unfortunately, the file concerning the Charles case appears incomplete. It is unclear what decision was ultimately reached by the Supreme Court, although the case was apparently on the docket for 1847, some six years after it first appeared in Hamilton Circuit Court.
Because it reached the Florida Supreme Court, the judge in Hamilton County must have agreed that the “defect in the Indictment” resulted in “a doubt upon the legal question so arising.” As with other Florida cases involving crimes committed upon white people by black people, whether slave or free, precise language was paramount.
The race of the defendant and victim determined whether the court would pursue charges under the 1828 slave codes or the 1832 penal code. The 1832 law specifically outlined different punishments for whites and blacks, both slave and free, who committed the same offense. Moreover, the punishment varied depending on the race of the victim.
Aside from procedural problems and questions about the validity of the indictment, the historical importance of this case relates to the charges brought against Charles. Historians have long recognized that the fear of black men raping white women served as justification for anti-black violence. Lynching of black men suspected of rape in 20th century Florida is well documented in histories of the Jim Crow period.
Recent studies suggest that antebellum rape cases are better understood in the context of class as well as race, whereas post-bellum examples must be viewed in the context of Jim Crow and unrestrained white violence against blacks.
In antebellum cases, the courts were less likely to rule in favor of lower class white women who accused male slaves of rape. Because of class prejudices, elite male jurors often called into question the honor and credibility of lower class white women. Slave-owning jurors also often sided with defendants because they too feared losing valuable property if a conviction resulted in a death sentence. Also, fewer cases involving elite white women reached the courts because family patriarchs feared the shame and dishonor that accompanied such incidents.