On this dayApr 01, 1807
Ohio Prohibits Any Black Person from Testifying Against a White Person
On April 1, 1807, Ohio began legally prohibiting Black people from testifying in cases involving white people as parties. As a result, for the next four decades, white people could act with impunity in filing baseless civil suits against Black people barred from testifying to defend themselves, and committing crimes against Black people with no fear that the victim or any Black witnesses would be permitted to give evidence against them. This law made Black people vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and ensured that they could not rely on the courts for protection or justice.
Between 1800 and 1810, the Black population of Ohio increased by more than 550%. When Ohio became a state in 1803, the Ohio legislature launched a coordinated campaign to prevent “fugitive slaves” and freed Black people from settling in the state. Enacted between 1804 and 1807, Ohio’s “Black Laws” sought to restrict the movement and freedom of Black people already living in the state, deny all Black people the right to public education, and require Black people to register with local authorities and “prove” their freedom on demand. Other laws restricted Black people from competing economically with white Ohioans; an 1807 law fined any white person for hiring a Black person who did not possess proof of freedom. Within 20 days of arriving in Ohio, Black people seeking residence there were required to post a $500 bond guaranteed by two white men.
The “testimony law,” which went into effect on April 1, 1807, built on these racial restrictions. The law prohibited any Black person from “be[ing] sworn or giv[ing] evidence in any court of record where either party is a white person, or in any prosecution… against any white person.” This meant that Black people could not testify against white people who committed crimes against them or others. In civil cases, white plaintiffs could easily win lawsuits against Black people, who were unable to protect themselves from even clearly frivolous lawsuits. This dramatically undermined the reliability of the legal system, and furthered the racial injustice and inequality facing Black people living in Ohio.
During this period, The Colored American, a Black newspaper in Cincinnati, reported numerous examples of white people swindling money from Black people, and also highlighted cases in which authorities failed to prosecute white-on-Black violence after this law kept Black eyewitnesses from testifying. In 1841, after two white men murdered a Black man named Charles Scott in his Hamilton County home, a white judge relied on the 1807 testimony law to prohibit Mr. Scott’s widow—an eyewitness to the murder—from testifying at the white men’s trial. Although the men were convicted after the judge admitted the testimony of a different eyewitness—whom the judge deemed “white enough” under a broad interpretation of the law—Mrs. Scott was barred from helping to prosecute the men who killed her husband. The testimony law, which prioritized white supremacy over justice, was on the books for 42 years and not repealed until 1849.
To learn more about the historical discrimination Black people have faced in the U.S. legal system, and how that injustice continues to undermine the credibility and reliability of the criminal justice system today, see the Equal Justice Initiative’s report, Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection.