Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Slavery case unfolded in San Diego courtroom 75 years ago

Downtown San Diego federal building on Aug. 13, 2018.
Katie Schoolov
Downtown San Diego federal building on Aug. 13, 2018.

The infamous case of a woman enslaved by a Coronado couple unfolded in a San Diego Federal courtroom 75 years ago this summer. The 1947 conviction of a white woman, Elizabeth Ingalls — her husband Alfred Ingalls was acquitted — for enslaving a Black woman named Dora Jones, is considered a watershed moment for some of the civil rights protections Americans have today.

During her decades of enslavement Jones was raped by Ingall's first husband, became pregnant and forced to have a then-illegal abortion. She worked 16 hours a day performing menial tasks, was beaten when she complained, clothed in rags, slept on the kitchen floor at times and was paid nothing.

"The threat that was held over her head was that because abortion was illegal back then, that she would go to jail," said John Wilkens, a staff writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune, who wrote about the case. "So there was this threat to Dora that if she tried to come forward and tell anybody her story that nobody would believe her. She was young and she was Black in a country that was still wrestling with any kind of fair civil rights. So she was terrified to try and make the case for herself."


The Ingalls were eventually turned in by their daughter who discovered Dora Jones sleeping in the couple’s car as they relocated from Boston to Coronado. The trial that followed — 82 years after the abolition of slavery in the U.S. — is believed to be the first federal anti-slavery case since Reconstruction.

"Anti-slavery cases that had been prosecuted under the 13th Amendment, which was passed in 1865, had for a long time mostly looked at financial slavery known as 'peonage cases.' If somebody owed somebody a debt they would use that as a financial loophole to keep somebody enslaved," Wilkens said. "But in the wake of the New Deal and in the wake of World War II they started looking at other cases and applying the 13th Amendment to cases that involved involuntary servitude."

Wilkens joined Midday Edition on Tuesday to talk about the significance of Jones' case and what it meant for U.S. Civil Rights protections.