In 1813 the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in one of the first petitions for freedom by an enslaved person. Mima Queen sued John Hepburn claiming she was descended from a free woman. Francis Scott Key argued the case for her, but Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the majority opinion denying her petition. Queen and her child Louisa remained in slavery. A few months later Key wrote the “Star Spangled Banner” and the British invaded Maryland and burned parts of Washington, D.C.

New research suggests there is more to this story that the limited viewpoint provided in the Supreme Court’s opinion. Francis Scott Key, for one, was involved in many such petitions, and his uncle Philip Barton Key represented an earlier generation of Queens. The lone dissenting justice on the Supreme Court, Gabriel Duvall, came from a prominent Maryland slaveholding family, and as a lawyer he had joined Philip Barton Key representing the Queens. Numerous other Maryland African American families filed similar petitions in the newly created District of Columbia circuit court of appeals beginning in the early 1800s.

The O Say Can You See: Early Washington D.C. Law and Family Project has received a two-year $200,000 Collaborative Research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize and make available the case files of the D.C. circuit court and to uncover the social networks of early Washington, D.C.

Scholars from the University of Maryland and the University of Nebraska will collaborate on research to understand the web of litigants, jurists, and other participants in D.C., and to place these multigenerational family networks in the foreground of the story of the founding of the nation’s capital.

“The O Say Can You See Project offers the opportunity to extend our use of digital tools and technologies to legal history,” said Jennifer Guiliano, Assistant Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities and one of the co-principal investigators of the project. “We want to not just make these underutilized records visible to the public, but also to imagine new ways for historians and genealogists to navigate the complex records that document families in early Washington and Maryland—whether these records are material, cultural, or legal.”

The case of Mima Queen will serve as one focal point for this investigation of family, law, and slavery. Claiming that she and her child should be emancipated from slavery because she was descended from Mary Queen, a free woman, Mima Queen leveraged an increasingly common legal tactic utilized by and on behalf of African Americans in the early American republic to argue for their freedom. But her case hinged on a larger transition for Maryland and Virginia–from colonies to states in a post-Revolutionary United States. Mima Queen v. Hepburn (11 U.S. 290) was one of the first landmark Supreme Court cases in the new nation to pit human rights against property rights.

William G. Thomas, co-principal investigator, is writing a new book on the Queen case and the contests over freedom and slavery in the aftermath of the American Revolution. “The history of slavery and freedom whether on the local or the national scale is also the history of families and the law,” said Thomas, “We can’t understand one without the other.”

The O Say Can You See Project will also use the case files of the D.C. court to recover and make visible the names of African American family members from in D.C. who mainly came from Maryland and Virginia. These family names and relationships are found on court affidavits and other documents.

The O Say Can You See Project is a partnership between the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the Department of History at the University of Nebraska, and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska. This collaboration will produce a series of virtual seminars to focus scholarly attention on the broader questions surrounding family networks as well as articles focusing on the challenges of data curation and digitization of petitions and civil cases in Prince George’s County and Washington, D.C.

The participation of experts in data curation from the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities is a key part of the project’s emphasis on opening up this dimension of historical research to wider participation and re-use. “The close working partnership of historians and data curators will generate new insights on how fragile and often fragmentary historical records can be made useful to future generations of scholars and genealogists,” said Trevor Muñoz, Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities and Assistant Dean for Digital Humanities Research at the University of Maryland Libraries.