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Although landmark Supreme Court cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade have great implications for life and culture in America, the state courts were far more influential throughout most of the nation’s history. Local courthouses rather than the distant powers of Washington shaped daily life in the nineteenth century.

In Law and Society in the South, John W. Wertheimer explores the complex interweaving of law and social life in the South by analyzing eight crucial North Carolina court cases from the slavery era to the civil rights era. Nowhere was the influence of the state court more prevalent than in the South. As the young nation matured after the Revolutionary War and suffered through the catastrophe of the Civil War, southern courts wove a patchwork of local jurisprudence that reflected their own particular concerns. Yet the southern legal system was neither an instrument of elite authority nor a neutral forum for dispute resolution. Southerners from all walks of life—men and women, rich and poor, white, black, and Native American—struggled to reform their communities, relying on the law as an agent of social change.

While the cases Wertheimer examines occurred in North Carolina, the issues surrounding them—interracial marriage, the teaching of evolution, prohibition, and perceptions about gender roles, among others—are relevant to the study of southern history in particular and American history as a whole. Each legal development in the volume is situated within its socio-historic context, deepening historical understanding and illuminating the broader theme of southern history.

John W. Wertheimer is professor of history at Davidson College.

Winner of the 2010 Willie Parker Peace Book Award.

“Captivating. Historiographically, a fresh exploration of key topics in the legal history of North Carolina, the South, and the nation, and pedagogically, a master teacher collaborating with successive cohorts of undergraduate fellow researchers. General readers and academics alike will learn from and enjoy the deep research, astute observations, and the fine writing.”—Peter Wallenstein, author of Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History

“Historian John W. Wertheimer highlights legal cases tried in North Carolina courts that helped the state and society.”—Fayetteville Observer-Times

“This book will appeal to readers who are interested in a detailed explanation of specific cases in North Carolina’s history. . . . It is well-written, interesting, and is sufficiently accessible to allow undergraduates to connect with the material." —Law and Politics Book Review

“This book offers a plethora of interesting insights about the role and influence of North Carolina courts in responding to and furthering social change in various eras.”—Journal of the North Carolina Historical Society

“This may be the best one-volume introduction to the themes and methods of American legal history now in existence, which is all the more impressive because it is written out of the history of one state.”—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“This fascinating collection covers a broad range of social and legal issues and is well worth reading for both the legal issues explored and the details of conflicts that brought these cases before North Carolina courts.”—Journal of American History

“Digs deeply into eight North Carolina cases from slavery times to the end of the civil rights era... a thoughtful and illuminating work.”—Continuity and Change

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






North Carolina, Race discrimination, African-Americans



Law and Society in the South: A History of North Carolina Court Cases
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