Martha Jones speaks on birthright citizenship

Danny Jin

Professor Martha Jones of Johns Hopkins delivers her talk on birthright citizenship and pre-Civil War Black activism, which was held on Sept. 12. PHOTO COURTESY OF NEIL ROBERTS.

The Fourteenth Amendment, which in 1868 granted U.S. citizenship to everyone who was born in the country, is often seen as a reversal of the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, which explicitly denied citizenship to Black residents. But until recently, the pre-Civil War activism of Black Americans against their dehumanization has largely been ignored, according to award-winning historian Martha S. Jones.

“For a long time, I think, with the story of citizenship we started with Dred Scott and fast-forwarded to the Civil War,” Jones told a College audience on Thursday. “What people don’t realize was there was a lot of murkiness in between. African Americans didn’t take [Dred Scott] as the final word, but rather continued to fight for their status as citizens.”

The author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, Jones addressed an audience of more than 50 on Thursday in Griffin 3 in a talk co-sponsored by the W. Ford Schumann ’50 Program in Democratic Studies and the history and Africana studies departments. Chair and Associate Professor of Africana Studies Neil Roberts said that he, Professor of History Gretchen Long and Professor of History Sara Dubow ’91 had spent over a year planning the event, which kicked off the second year of the Schumann program’s “Race and Democracy” series. 

Jones, the Society of Black Alumni presidential professor at Johns Hopkins, posited the state of Maryland as a key battleground where free Black people continued to struggle to protect and marginally expand their civil rights after the Dred Scott case. At the time, Maryland was the state with the greatest population of free Black people, who numbered at least 75,000 in 1860. 

The Maryland Court of Appeals had in fact rejected the logic of the Dred Scott decision in 1858’s Hughes v. Jackson. In that case, the state’s high court upheld the right of a free Black man named Samuel Jackson to bring suit in the state’s courts. The alternative, Jones said, would have been to create 75,000 ‘outlaws’ in the state of Maryland.

Understanding the fight for birthright citizenship, Jones said, is particularly pertinent given that the Trump administration has publicly discussed plans to end it. But for her, birthright citizenship is an important safeguard against racism and xenophobia.

“In any country, there are the despised,” Jones said. “It turns out the children of the despised are citizens — I hope unassailably.”

Jones’ narrative focused on George Hackett (1806–1870), a Black Baltimorean who helped defeat an 1860 bill that would have resulted in the removal or re-enslavement of Maryland’s entire Black population.

Hackett’s unsung heroism, according to Jones, was most visible in his efforts at his local courthouse. “He kept returning to his local courthouse in an effort to construct himself and others like him as citizens,” she said.

Yet individuals like Hackett, who were crucial to the early history of Black citizenship, have been “obscured, neglected and overlooked” by scholarship, Jones said. Nevertheless, she continued, continuing in Hackett’s legacy means pushing forward in the struggle for civil rights rather than dwelling on his lack of recognition.

“I think he’d want us to pause only briefly, and to turn instead to the problems of our own times, the challenge of civil rights,” Jones reflected, “because there is still work to be done.”

The “Race and Democracy” series continues Sept. 25 with a visit from David Eng, the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. That event is co-sponsored by the Schumann program, as well as the English, psychology and comparative literature departments.

The Fourteenth Amendment, which in 1868 granted U.S. citizenship to everyone who was born in the country, is often seen as a reversal of the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, which explicitly denied citizenship to Black residents. But until recently, the pre-Civil War activism of Black Americans against their dehumanization has largely been ignored, according to award-winning historian Martha S. Jones.

“For a long time, I think, with the story of citizenship we started with Dred Scott and fast-forwarded to the Civil War,” Jones told a College audience on Thursday. “What people don’t realize was there was a lot of murkiness in between. African Americans didn’t take [Dred Scott] as the final word, but rather continued to fight for their status as citizens.”

The author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, addressed an audience of more than 50 on Thursday in Griffin 3 in a talk co-sponsored by the W. Ford Schumann ’50 Program in Democratic Studies and the history and Africana studies departments. Chair and Associate Professor of Africana Studies Neil Roberts said that he, Professor of History Gretchen Long and Professor of History Sara Dubow ’91 had spent over a year planning the event, which kicked off the second year of the Schumann program’s “Race and Democracy” series. 

Jones, the Society of Black Alumni presidential professor at Johns Hopkins University, posited the state of Maryland as a key battleground where free Black people continued to struggle to protect and marginally expand their civil rights after the Dred Scott case. At the time, Maryland was the state with the greatest population of free Black people, who numbered at least 75,000 in 1860. 

The Maryland Court of Appeals had in fact rejected the logic of the Dred Scott decision in 1858’s Hughes v. Jackson. In that case, the state’s high court upheld the right of a free Black man named Samuel Jackson to bring suit in the state’s courts. The alternative, Jones said, would have been to create 75,000 ‘outlaws’ in the state of Maryland.

Understanding the fight for birthright citizenship, Jones said, is particularly pertinent given that the Trump administration has publicly discussed plans to end it. But for her, birthright citizenship is an important safeguard against racism and xenophobia.

“In any country, there are the despised,” Jones said. “It turns out the children of the despised are citizens — I hope unassailably.”

Jones’ narrative focused on George Hackett (1806–1870), a Black Baltimorean who helped defeat an 1860 bill that would have resulted in the removal or re-enslavement of Maryland’s entire Black population.

Hackett’s unsung heroism, according to Jones, was most visible in his efforts at his local courthouse. “He kept returning to his local courthouse in an effort to construct himself and others like him as citizens,” she said.

Yet individuals like Hackett, who were crucial to the early history of Black citizenship, have been “obscured, neglected and overlooked” by scholarship, Jones said. Nevertheless, she continued, continuing in Hackett’s legacy means pushing forward in the struggle for civil rights rather than dwelling on his lack of recognition.

“I think he’d want us to pause only briefly, and to turn instead to the problems of our own times, the challenge of civil rights,” Jones reflected, “because there is still work to be done.”

The “Race and Democracy” series continues Sept. 25 with a visit from David Eng, the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. The event is co-sponsored by the Schumann program, as well as the English, psychology and comparative literature departments.