When slaves sued for freedom: A city reckons with its past

In Memphis, they’ve turned the hotel where Martin Luther King was murdered into a museum honoring the Civil Rights Movement. Across the South, “Civil Rights tourism” is on the rise. Though not without ambiguities and controversy, this development at its best may represent an attempt to acknowledge the sins of the past, the courage of those who resisted evil, and the pernicious effects of racism on everyone.

St. Louis, as I discussed in an Occasional Planet piece a few months ago, has a foggy memory of its role in slavery, Jim Crow, and other forms of systemic racism. But sometimes we do try.

The other day I came across this in my Facebook news feed.

“St. Louis Freedom Suits in the Era of Henry Shaw” with Dr. Kenneth Winn, Librarian of the Missouri Supreme Court. Part of the Friends of Tower Grove Park Lecture series. FREE Today, 4/1 at Stupp Center, 3P.

I knew I had to go.

Dr. Kenneth Winn, former archivist for the State of Missouri, got a grant to archive St. Louis circuit court records. Combing through jumbled documents, each tri-folded, tied with a red ribbon, and covered with a fine layer of black dust from the original coal-fired heating system in the Old Courthouse, Winn gradually realized that he and his team were finding something remarkable. Between 1824 and 1845, scores of enslaved people sued in the St. Louis court, arguing that they should be free. Winn’s archivists have found more than three hundred such lawsuits over the past eight years.

Though freedom suits were also frequent in other border states like Kentucky and Maryland, as well as in Louisiana, the St. Louis collection of freedom suits is now the largest in the United States. St. Louis, it seems, is ground zero for important court cases in the African American freedom struggle. Consider Shelley v. Kraemer and Jones v. Mayer, groundbreaking cases that addressed restrictive covenants and racial discrimination in private real estate deals; or United States v. The City of Black Jack, another important decision against housing practices that had a discriminatory effect. All three of these cases originated in the St. Louis area.

In these nineteenth-century freedom suits, however, the issues were even more stark and personal: individuals bringing suit against slave masters, asserting that they were unfairly enslaved. Their arguments typically took one of three approaches:

1) A claim of maternal Indian descent: Native Americans at this time were not legally subject to enslavement (though in practice many were), and one’s legal status depended the legal status of one’s mother.

2) A claim of established residence in a free state or territory: This was the claim made by Dred and Harriet Scott, who had lived in free states for extended periods of time with their master, a military surgeon.

3) A claim that one (or one’s parent) had been a victim of kidnapping: Stealing people was a lucrative source of illicit income at this time. Such was the case with St. Louisan Lucy Delaney, whose 1891 narrative From the Darkness Cometh the Light is still read today as a remarkably detailed and accurate account of the author’s journey from slavery to freedom.

 Why St. Louis? 

At Tower Grove Park that Sunday afternoon, Winn explained that St. Louis attracted a lot of slave freedom suits because as a city that bordered a free state, it offered both a supportive community of free blacks as well as the chance of gaining the support of sympathetic whites.

Also, in 1824, shortly after Missouri’s controversial entry into the Union as a slave state, the state legislature amended its slave codes to allow slaves to sue for their freedom. In a remarkable move, the new codes also provided for taxpayer-funded legal counsel for slaves who brought these suits. Merely providing the right to sue was fairly meaningless, after all, since few slaves had the resources to mount successful legal cases.

Despite this remarkably liberal policy, slavery was entrenched in St. Louis. The city was founded in 1764 by Pierre Laclede and his stepson Auguste Chouteau, along with their slaves. When Auguste died, he owned some fifty slaves, ranging from elderly men to newborn babies. Auguste and his brother Pierre were ruthless slave masters who tried to disrupt the transfer of the Louisiana Territory to U.S. control because they feared that Thomas Jefferson would forbid slavery in the newly-acquired lands. Later, Pierre Chouteau, Jr., known as “Cadet,” would help to make sure that Missouri’s constitution permitted slavery—and later still he would help to fund the Sanford family’s legal work in Dred Scott v. Sanford. Though today the Chouteaus’ name carries the ring of St. Louis royalty, they were actually something like the Koch brothers: wealthy power brokers who worked behind the scenes to extend oppressive laws and promote inequality.

Dr. Winn presented a fascinating account of the way freedom suits worked on the ground. More women than men filed these suits; men were more apt to take to their feet to escape slavery, while women often had children to think about. If a slave sued for freedom, the master was forbidden to sell the slave away or beat him or her in retaliation. If the slave feared that such retribution was going to occur regardless of the law, he or she would be removed to the city jail and possibly hired out to someone else. The wages paid would be held until after the case was settled. If the slave won freedom, the money was given to the newly emancipated winner. If not, the money went to the slave master, who would often then sell the slave away as revenge.

Some of the lawyers who represented slaves were scorned in the same way that some lawyers today are considered “ambulance chasers”—seen as sucking public funds to defend a despised class of people. On the other hand, some very prominent attorneys took on these freedom suits, not because they believed slavery was wrong, but because they believed it was right—but only if done legally. Edward Bates, for instance, a slave-owner who later became Lincoln’s attorney general, was Lucy Delaney’s attorney and made an impassioned argument on her behalf.

In 1845, the “Golden Age of Freedom Suits” in St. Louis came to an end when the flow of public funding for them was abruptly shut off. Dred and Harriet Scott’s case, filed shortly before the cessation of this funding, was seemingly a routine case, for they clearly had established residence in a free state.

The Scotts lost on a technicality in the St. Louis circuit court, but as their case was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, according to Dr. Winn, a lot of white people decided to throw a lot of money into making it a test case to bring down the “once free, always free” rule. Indeed, the state court explicitly broke with precedent, declaring that revolutionary times demanded a new approach. “Once free, always free” was no more: it didn’t matter where the Scotts had resided.

With powerful people like the Chouteaus arrayed against Dred and Harriet Scott, the case made its way to the Supreme Court, and in 1857 Chief Justice Roger Taney authored the devastating majority opinion that African Americans had no rights a white man was bound to respect and that, in fact, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional. Congress, attempting to legislate a compromise to the issue of slavery, had exceeded its powers, the Court decided. (This decision sounds eerily familiar today as the Supreme Court considers the fate of the Affordable Care Act.)

The last freedom suit in St. Louis was filed in 1860, and in five years’ time such suits would be moot.

How should a city reckon with its past?

Surely Dr. Winn’s talk—and the research it was based on—represents one way of doing so. The story he told was complex, as was the picture of St. Louis that emerged. Here was a place whose very founder and his descendents were major forces in the perpetuation of chattel slavery. Yet it was also a place that offered a relatively hospitable climate for enslaved people who risked everything to seek justice and freedom through the law. It was a place where a slave-owning lawyer could make an impassioned speech in order to free a brave African American girl who had been illegally enslaved.

In order to reckon with our complex past, we St. Louisans need to hear these types of stories and to share them with each other. In our classrooms, Black History Month needs to be a time of searching for new understandings. We may know about the March on Washington or the bridge at Selma, but how much do we know about all the important struggles that took place in our own city? If we don’t understand the complex history of race in St. Louis, do we have any hope of understanding the complex present?

Frank Kovarik (14 Posts)

Frank Kovarik teaches high school English in St. Louis, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. He blogs at Corresponding Fractions.