1847 Harris County case Emeline, a free person of color v. Jesse P. Bolls highlights a monumental legal victory. Emeline came to Houston as a free woman in the early 1840s, where she and her sons were forced back into slavery by Jesse P. Bolls. They remained Bolls’ slaves for the 18-month duration of the case. She was an illiterate, biracial woman and made the bold decision to take legal action to sue her slaveowner.
Her tremendous courage prevailed despite the odds being stacked against her. Slavery was still legal in Texas at that time. Under pro bono legal counsel of Peter Gray, Emeline filed a suit to gain her freedom. This case was the first known pro bono case in Houston. Judge C.W. Buckley was a slave owner. Gray handpicked the jury to consist of 6 white men who did not own slaves. Ultimately, they ruled in Emeline’s favor and sued Jesse P. Bolls for $1. Emeline protected her freedom.
Historical documentation from this important case was found in the Harris County archives. Emeline offers a symbol of the importance of Houston lawyers continuing to do pro bono work.