On July 30, 1866, a New Orleans attorney of some influence, Thomas Jefferson Durant, gazed out of his downtown office as marauding policemen beat and shot black people in the streets.
The police mob blasted into a place called Mechanics’ Hall, two blocks away, “where twenty-five delegates to an interracial state constitutional convention were preparing to enfranchise black men and strip ex-Confederates of the right to vote,” writes Adam Rothman in Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery.
Although Durant had opposed the convention as “injudicious and dangerous,” he knew the blood could just as well be his. Slipping out of his office, he fled to a friend’s plantation in nearby Carrollton, where he jumped on a steamboat heading upriver and left New Orleans behind, never to return.
The Mechanics’ Hall riot reverberated as far as the halls of Congress as a sign of how far Confederate sympathizers and ex-Rebel soldiers would go to restore white supremacy. Louisiana was a bleeding place, as Republicans pushing Reconstruction faced a tide of white resistance.
Rothman’s riveting narrative follows the legal action that Durant brought on behalf of a slave, Rose Herera, who argued for the return of her three small children from the white owners who fled Union occupation of New Orleans in the Civil War by sailing to Havana.
Durant took the case and charged the owners, James and Mary De Hart, with kidnapping three children from a city where the slavery laws had become opaque under Union occupation.
Before the Civil War, Rose was the wife of a freedman of color, George Herera, a house painter who lived with his father. She was also an enslaved domestic servant in the home of Dr. De Hart, a dentist who like many partisans of the Confederacy was jolted when New Orleans fell to Admiral Farragut’s gunboats in 1862.
How often George and Rose met, and under what circumstances, we are left to speculate. The children they had suggest that De Hart and his wife, Mary, were both tolerant and jadedly cynical. Perhaps by the De Harts’ paternalistic lights, they gave the couple sufficient privacy as a form of kindness. Then, too, each baby borne by Rose Herera became the De Harts’ legal property.
Rothman, the author of Slave Country and a Georgetown University history professor, uses his source material so judiciously that any number of moments, which moan for dialogue by a screenwriter or novelist, instead unfold, scene by scene, with a devastating power of understatement.
Rothman’s theme is the moral logic of slavery as embedded in law and social custom. As hard as it is for today’s reader to imagine a mindset that rationalized such cruelty, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” follows that logic of moral evasion well into the 20th century, and the myraid ways African-Americans were stripped of their property, even as they tried to buy homes in the North.
In November 1862, as enslaved Africans clamored for freedom in New Orleans, Dr. De Hart followed a route familiar to other men of means: he fled by ship to Havana. Cuba’s slave economy attracted slave-owning Southerners with the wherewithal to remake their lives, and there they sat out the war, hoping that its outcome would allow them to return with their capital, human and otherwise.
De Hart quickly established himself in Havana medical circles. Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, it fell to his wife, Mary, to arrange passage for Rose and her children a few weeks later. As Rothman points out, “Rose Herera and her children made up the De Harts’ most valuable assets. Herera’s labor relieved Mary De Hart of the burdens of housework. Though very young, the children could soon be made to work. If the De Harts needed money, they could be hired out or sold. In the meantime, they could serve as playmates for their son.
Then, following an altercation with Mary’s aunt, in which Rose was accused of hitting the woman in the face with a coffee pot, Rose was thrown into Parish Prison.
In testimony three years later, Rose claimed, “I did not knock her in the face. She came to me with the coffee pot, and it flew in her face ... I was put in jail because I was saucy.” Rather plaintively, she added, “I said I had been working all the days and the little babies were crying.”
“Rose Herera and her two-month-old baby languished in the dungeon for a month while Mary De Hart pestered her to go to Havana with her children,” Rothman writes. “She visited Herera several times in jail to try to convince her to go. De Hart even threatened to take the three oldest children without her, but their mother would not cave in.”
Herera stayed in prison. Mrs. De Hart sailed to Cuba with Rose’s three other children.
When President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, New Orleans was not considered in rebellion since it was controlled by Union generals. Slaves were running away nonetheless; black men were joining the Union army and Nathaniel Banks, the commander in charge of the city, took the contradictory position of asking slaves to remain on their plantations without asserting the authority to make them do so.
Rose and the baby were released from prison. With George she launched a legal challenge to free their children in Cuba. It was at that point that Durant enters the story.
What Rothman uncovers on the attorney suggests a man of three-dimensional complexity. A Southerner of secessionist convictions, Durant appears to have been fundamentally changed by the city’s early defeat in the Civil War.
Taking a case like Rose Herera’s was sure to make Durant unpopular in establishment circles; but the force of change we associate with great characters in fiction has a similar momentum in historical literature. Beyond Freedom’s Reach follows the events Durant orchestrated, including the aid of Senator Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts abolitionist once beaten savagely on the floor of the Senate by a South Carolina congressman, who took up the Herrera case and forced the State Department to get involved.
The paucity of documents that quote what slaves said is always a hurdle in narratives from this period, but Rothman’s search through far-flung archives, from Cuba to New Orleans to Washington, yields enough to give a sense of Rose Herera’s resilience. Still, it would be wonderful to know what she thought when Mrs. De Hart, on a return trip from Cuba, was herself thrown behind bars.
That event comes near the end of the book, with plot turns yielded by the author’s prodigious research to keep one reading, hungrily, to the final paragraph.
Jason Berry’s books include Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II and Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.