Justice for Edgecombe County Slave

Court document from State v. Negro Will

A court document from the State v. Negro Will
case. Image from the State Archives.

On January 22, 1834, Will, a man enslaved by James Battle of Edgecombe County, killed a white man. The killing resulted in the State v. Negro Will case, in which the North Carolina Supreme Court protected slaves from a charge of murder when acting in self-defense.

The day started with an argument between Will and a slave foreman named Allen over the possession of a hoe. Tempers flared and Will broke the hoe before going to work at a nearby cotton mill. After learning of Will’s behavior Richard Baxter, Battle’s overseer, set off on horseback with his gun. Allen followed with his whip. Confronted by Baxter, Will attempted to flee but was shot in the back. Wounded and running for his life, Will was overtaken. Armed with a knife with poison on the blade, Will fought off Baxter. A deep knife wound to Baxter’s arm proved fatal.

After looking at the evidence Battle believed that Will acted in self-defense, and he hired two prominent lawyers to insure that Will received justice.

The case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that any slave under such provocation could only be charged with manslaughter. This challenged the 1829 State v. Mann decision which held that a master’s power was absolute.

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