Civil Wrongs

by Published on

Counterfeit Justice’s subtitle is The Judicial Odyssey of Texas Freedwoman Azeline Hearne, and author Dale Baum, professor of history at Texas A&M University, makes Azeline’s journey compellingly real. His book recounts Azeline’s transformations from slave mistress to plantation owner to homeless-by-choice vagabond, defrauded of her inheritance in myriad courtroom contests. Azeline remains proud throughout, refusing to accept a deal that would have kept a roof over her head, even as she saw her property rights swindled from her.

After outlining the social, economic and political climates of the pre-Reconstruction era—on national, state and deep East Texas stages—Baum introduces Azeline as a “twenty-eight-year-old, light-skinned female.” She, along with her 7-year-old son, Doctor (“Dock”) Samuel Jones Hearne, moved with her “master”—Dock’s father, Samuel (“Sam”) R. Hearne—and the rest of the Hearne clan and its slaves from Louisiana to swampy, snake-filled Robertson County, Texas, in 1853.

Sam was the family renegade, cohabiting and procreating with Azeline in a quasi-matrimonial relationship—a precursor to common law marriage—to the consternation of his white relatives. His wealth shielded him from overt ostracism while he lived, but in death he was barred from the family cemetery.

Azeline was Sam’s chosen until his death in 1866, after the Civil War. Sam’s will provided a post-mortem jab at the extended Hearne family, and one last opportunity to demonstrate his affection for Azeline.

Sam’s friend and deathbed physician, in defiance of white racist society, probated Sam’s will, in which he confirmed paternity and bequeathed his estate to 20-year-old Dock—his mixed-blood son with Azeline—with the provision that Dock provide for his mother until her death.

Sam’s physician refused to serve as Dock’s legal guardian, as Sam’s will requested, and that deference to propriety opened the door to legal challenges from Hearne’s white family. Within days of Sam’s death, his brother and brother-in-law suggested that the will filed by Sam’s physician was fraudulent and requested the court appoint them administrators of Sam’s estate. That was the first of numerous gambits aimed at keeping Sam’s property out of Dock’s and Azeline’s hands.

Dock died just two years after Sam, leaving Azeline to navigate the path from slave to freedwoman alone. For almost 16 years, befuddled at times, brilliant at others, she defended her property.

In her last court case, a decrepit Azeline sued her own attorney, Harvey Prendergrast, for malpractice. Disregarding the advice of local African-American leaders, she rejected Prendergrast’s offer to settle the suit for a consideration of $10 a month and Prendergrast’s vague promise to build a “little house” on “the old Sam Hearne place” in which she could live out her life.

Instead, she chose a new attorney, William H. Hamman, her former legal nemesis turned ardent advocate and, eventually, ally. The accomplished and venerable Hamman, a white man, sued Prendergrast on Azeline’s behalf.

Baum notes that Hamman’s 12-page petition was “both complex and surprising.” It was also novel. It alleged a cause of action non-existent in Texas case law at the time: attorney malpractice. Hamman dragged Prendergrast through nearly three years of discovery. During that time, Hamman cared for Azeline, hiring a physician to treat her, paying for her medicine, and arranging various domestic jobs for her. He befriended her.

A judge dismissed Azeline’s claims because she waited too late to file them.  The statute of limitations had expired. An appeal to the Texas Supreme Court proved fruitless because Azeline had not filed a certified pauperis affidavit showing she couldn’t afford a lawyer. Common vernacular would call this a technicality. Azeline found herself with no further legal recourse against her former attorney and, by extension, no ownership rights in the property bequeathed to her.

At 57, Azeline was impoverished, “sick in bed” for extended periods, and wandering from neighbors’ to friends’ homes bartering domestic chores for housing, clothing, and medical care.

Baum writes history, describing events as they happened. He resists false race-based dichotomies and keeps the focus on Azeline’s fight for an inheritance that was hers by rights.

Baum tells us that Azeline died homeless and alone, leaving “…no record or collective memory of when she died or where she was buried.” Azeline’s story exits the public record with the dismissal of her final lawsuit. But she does not lack a legacy. She was a pioneering plaintiff and a predecessor to the civil rights movement that arose nearly a century later, forging a path where none existed for generations of African-Americans to challenge injustice at the hands of white men. The legal and moral injustice Azeline suffered can’t be rectified, but in chronicling her life, Baum redeems her struggle for history.

Cynthia Hall Clements is an attorney for an Austin-based nonprofit representing Texans with disabilities. She works in the West Texas regional office in Lubbock and can be reached at [email protected]