It is not slander, per se, to charge a white man with being a free negro.

by Lisa Y. Henderson

Abner C. McDowell v. William Bowles, 53 NC 184 (1860).

“It is not actionable, per se, to charge a white man with being a free negro; and it does not alter the case, that such man was a minister of the gospel.”

This slander case was tried in Surry Superior Court. Abner McDowell charged that, when he attempted to vote at a constable’s election, William Bowles said that McDowell had no right to vote, that he was a free negro, and that “if you let free negroes vote, here, let Zach. Warden vote also.”  (Warden was, in fact, a free man of color.) McDowell declared that he was “a clear blooded white man, and a regular licensed minister of the Baptist Church” and charged Bowles with slander.

Bowles moved for summary judgment on the ground that his alleged words were not actionable. The court agreed, and McDowell appealed.

The state Supreme Court noted that slanderous words fell into three categories: those that impute a crime; those that “impute an contagious disease, by which the party impugned would be excluded from society;” and those derogatory with respect to a person’s profession. “We are not aware of any class of defamatory words, which are held to be actionable, that would embrace the language complained of in this case.”