When communications professor Lynn Caldwell visited Bauman Rare Books in Las Vegas last Christmas, she never expected to find a document related to 19th century slavery in Maryland.
The yellowed piece of paper protected in a heavy, plastic sleeve bore an indictment in sprawling cursive handwriting against a slave named Nimrod, charging him with the murder of his owner’s son and establishing legal grounds for a trial.
“Is this real? Is this authentic?” Caldwell asked upon viewing the paper. “I couldn’t believe how pristine it was a for an almost 200-year-old legal document. My next thoughts turned to the uniqueness of its content.”
Caldwell, a collector of historic and rare books, took four of her own books for appraisal and had not intended to purchase anything at Bauman’s that day. But upon examining the 1815 indictment, Caldwell shelled out $400 for it. On July 8, she personally delivered the paper in a hard-sided computer case to the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis where it was accessioned into Special Collections as the Nimrod Collection.
It is the third historic item of its type that Caldwell has discovered, purchased and gifted to public collections in three states over the past 10 years. It is a purposeful effort on her part, a mission to understand and to help right injustices by telling the full story of racism and race relations in the United States, and to help family members piece together their histories. “The story needs to be told and the documents need to get out of the commercial realm and into archives,” she said.
Caldwell, an associate professor of communication at La Sierra University, says legal documents pertaining to the slave trade are very important as they can help researchers determine whether justice was done or ignored. Researchers in Maryland are using Caldwell’s document about the slave, Nimrod to help uncover the details about the murder case which involved indictments against five other slaves.
“When documents like this one come to light, it’s like the beam of a flashlight helping you to see details in the corner of a dark room. In this case, the document sheds light on accusations made against a slave for murder two hundred years ago,” said Maria Day, deputy director of Special Collections at the Maryland archives. “What interests me about this slip of paper is that nine citizens of the county are willing to give testimony that Nimrod should be tried for murder. So now I’m asking questions about Nimrod, such as, who was he, was he guilty of the murder? Was he provoked into an act of violence in order to defend himself or, even could he have been framed? We will have to look more into the records of the trial to learn more.”
Chris Haley, nephew of famed “Roots” author Alex Haley and descendant of Kunta Kinte is heading up a study on the legacy of slavery at the Maryland archives and was among those who met with Caldwell when she delivered the document.
“The importance of acquiring a document such as the Grand Jury Inquest for Nimrod, the enslaved servant and accused murderer of his deceased master Edward Goings' son, Edward Goings Jr. is significant and multilevel,” Haley said. “Without further research we cannot know for certain if Nimrod’s crime was premeditated or an explosion due to years of suppressed resentment and anger. We cannot know if Nimrod had accepted the senior Goings' place as his master under promise of future emancipation only to find it dashed upon his death and the son's reluctance or refusal to follow through with that pledge. We can, however, suspect that the relationship between a slave owner’s son and that same slave owner’s servant came to a breaking point, not reached during the former's lifetime. This document again illustrates the complex, intimate and often dangerous environment the institution of slavery wrought.”
Caldwell has for many years collected rare and historic books and documents. Her stash of about 40 rare books includes many first editions by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, “The Yearling,” a book club first edition of another Pulitzer winner that decries racial injustice, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and a first edition of an autobiography by Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife, Coretta Scott King. Coretta King, the couple’s daughter Bernice King, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s youngest sister, Christine King Farris all signed the book for Caldwell during an event commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s January 15 birthday, which is also Caldwell’s birthday.
“I’m always on the hunt for old books, old documents, anything old and cool,” said Caldwell.
A native of Jacksonville, Fla., much of Caldwell’s literary and historic interests tie in with her southern upbringing. For instance the author Rawlings lived in a rural area of Florida not far from Caldwell’s geographic roots. But her interests in the study of race, ethnicity and injustice derives from a moment of epiphany about 20 years ago while eating at an upscale restaurant in Chicago, Ill. with friends, not long after completing her master’s degree.
“I sat there and everyone serving me was a person of color,” she said. “That’s when I think my privilege hit me. That woke me up.” She flashed back to scenes she had witnessed as a child of restaurant managers forcing black customers out of their businesses.
Caldwell determined to make a difference. She sought out and frequented businesses owned by people of color and began a study in social inequality with an emphasis on race. Her collection of historic and rare books and items began to take a different focus. “I wanted to find a way to connect and make a difference. That’s when my collection of things related to slavery or the African-American experience came about,” she said.
Over the years she discovered a black and white photo on glass taken during the 19th century of an African-American community leader and former slave, and a bill of sale for a slave named Toby sold in January 1865 to a family in Charlotte, N.C. The photo she discovered in an antique store outside of Chattanooga, Tenn. and subsequently donated to an African-American museum in Chattanooga. The museum had a book with a replica of the photo printed in its pages, but had never come across the original image, Caldwell said.
She gifted the bill of sale to the archives of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte after purchasing the document in Georgia for $150 at a public auction of historic materials from the Civil War era. “That was the first document I bought at an auction, and my heart was just beating out of my chest,” she said. “I was afraid the bidding would go too high, but I was persistent and acquired the document for a decent price.”
“That piece helps prove the fact that Southerners were still buying and selling people at the very end of the Civil War,” Caldwell said. “We don’t realize how closely linked we still are to that history.”
“From earlier experiences I learned that legal documents related to slaves are very important for researchers who wish to write an accurate history of the African-American experience in the United States. Also, and even more important, are the family researchers who are descended from these slaves. Every little piece of information can fill in the gaps of history for them.”
Says Caldwell, “The gospel is, if you have a document that can fill in the blanks of history, give it to the archives, give it to a museum.”