Challenging Slavery in the Courtroom: “A Question of Freedom”

Cropped cover of A Question of Freedom

In partnership with the Virginia Center for the Book, Maryland Center for the Book at Maryland Humanities presents William G. Thomas III as he shares the intricate and intensely human story of enslaved families of Prince George’s County, Maryland and the hundreds of lawsuits they brought against slavery. His book, A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War was recently announced the winner of the 2021 Neiman Foundation/Columbia School of Journalism Mark Lynton Prize in History.

Thomas will discuss the longest and most complex legal challenge to slavery in American history, lawyers who supported the enslaved families, the slaveholders and others who defended slavery, and its present-day legacies, in conversation with Omar Eaton-Martínez, Assistant Division Chief, Historical Resources for Prince George’s County Parks & Recreation.

Watch the event recording

A Question of FreedomFor over seventy years and five generations, the enslaved families of Prince George’s County, Maryland, filed hundreds of suits for their freedom against a powerful circle of slaveholders, taking their cause all the way to the Supreme Court. Between 1787 and 1861, these lawsuits challenged the legitimacy of slavery in American law and put slavery on trial in the nation’s capital.

Piecing together evidence once dismissed in court and buried in the archives, William Thomas tells an intricate and intensely human story of the enslaved families (the Butlers, Queens, Mahoneys, and others), their lawyers (among them a young Francis Scott Key), and the slaveholders who fought to defend slavery, beginning with the Jesuit priests who held some of the largest plantations in the nation and founded a college at Georgetown. A Question of Freedom asks us to reckon with the moral problem of slavery and its legacies in the present day.

Buy a copy of A Question of Freedom through our official event bookseller, The UVA Bookstores.

  • William G. Thomas III, Author

    William G. Thomas III photo

    William G. Thomas III, author of A Question of Freedom, is the Angle Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Nebraska. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Lincoln Prize Finalist, and was co-founder and director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia.

  • Omar Eaton-Martínez, Moderator

    Headshot of Omar Eaton-Martinez

    Omar Eaton-Martínez, assistant division chief, Historical Resources for Prince George’s County Parks & Recreation, is a museum leader whose professional vision is to transform communities through co-stewardship of narratives in the spirit of diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion. He stands in the gap, to advocate for the unheard and the unseen through public history, art, culture and science.

Presented by the Maryland Center for the Book at Maryland Humanities and Virginia Center for the Book at Virginia Humanities, this event is FREE to attend and open to the public. To attend, please register here or simply make plans to watch on The video recording from this event will also be available to watch after the event concludes, on

Both Centers for the Book are affiliated with the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. To learn more about their work visit Maryland Center for the Book and Virginia Center for the Book.

To learn more about the work of state humanities councils, visit: Maryland Humanities and Virginia Humanities.

Maryland Humanities is a statewide, educational nonprofit organization that creates and supports bold experiences that explore and elevate our shared stories to connect people, enhance lives, and enrich communities.
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