Guest Blog

Foundry Series Q&A: Martha Jones


Plan to come out for this Thursday’s Foundry Series, The 14th Amendment and Birthright Citizenship, with Dr. Martha Jones of Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Jones was kind enough to answer a couple questions to get you thinking before the event on Thursday night.

How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?

There are several things. First, my own life experience as a lawyer in local courts where I knew lots of documents and records were produced, and I always wanted to get back into those sorts of archives. In addition, I found that many of historians relied on the Dred Scott decision (Dred Scott v. Sandford, an 1857 court case which ruled that no person of African could be an American citizenship, even if born in the United States) but they don’t dig deeper into the broader history of race and citizenship. Finally, Baltimore had the archives I needed, it had a connection to Roger Taney (Chief Justice in the Dred Scott case), and even today it is a place we look to when we have questions about race.

I continue to be fascinated by the story of race and citizenship in Baltimore. We think of a courthouse as this tense, high-stakes place that centered on law. It is also a place where people came to tell the stories of their lives. In learning about everyday people in the courthouse, piecing together shards of their stories, you can create compelling characters. Plus, you find boxes that have never been opened and stories that have never been told. That’s a historian’s dream — the ultimate treasure hunt.

How do you see your topic/ work relating to events and issues today?

To write an early chapter on American citizenship, you’re looking at former slaves who were arguing for the right to be an American citizen. These are people who had been working and living and contributing to the nation for decades, but who weren’t seen as part of that nation. Today, I see a new community of people who are being told the same thing. Undocumented and unauthorized immigrants are in a similar position to that of former slaves in the mid-19th century. They’ve built families, helped build institutions, but they live under a constant cloud, a threat. In the 19th century this was seen as a humanitarian crisis, and it was solved by war and the passage of the 14th Amendment which established birthright citizenship. I don’t know what the answer is today. It might be in a radical, new thinking about who and what is a citizen, and then making a way for new legislation.

What was the most significant or surprising thing you learned during your research?

I came into this project very interested in Roger Taney of the US Supreme Court. I had a hunch, but just a hunch, that he knew a lot more about the lives of everyday African Americans than he every let on in his official writing. Where do you find evidence for something like that? Well, I found it in a travel permit application for an African-American man names Cornelius Thompson. Thompson was from Baltimore, he was a former slave, and he was looking to travel to Virginia to do some work. At the time, he needed a permit to re-enter Maryland. To get the permit, he had to get the signatures of three “respectable” white people. He did just that, and the three signatures he got were those of Justice Taney, his wife, and his son-in-law. This was a breakthrough piece of evidence. It showed Taney knew intimately the challenges faced by African Americans in their everyday lives and he brought that understanding to his work on the Supreme Court.

Anything interesting that didn’t get published or had to be cut?

I ended up cutting a portion about public education. African Americans in 19th century Baltimore paid taxes that went to public education, but had no access to the schools they supported. I found evidence that, with great regularity, free African Americans were petitioning the mayor and city council, using language taken from the American Revolution – “no taxation without representation.” They tied their struggles fo rights to to revolutionary values and rhetoric which helped them gain traction for their claims.

Any social media accounts you regularly follow or would recommend?

The African American Intellectual History Society has a great twitter and blog called Black Perspectives (which has its own wonderful twitter account) and I regularly share and like their content.