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University of Iowa News Release

May 9, 2003

UI Law Professor Recovers Voices Of Slaves Seeking Freedom

As UI law professor Lea VanderVelde pulled the boxes from the dusty, grubby backrooms of a St. Louis courthouse, she would hear other voices.

Marie says she was "assaulted, beaten, bruised, ill-treated and faces imprisonment." John Singleton, born a free man in Illinois, was kidnapped as a teenager and sold into slavery in the South. Lemon Dutton was born of a free woman, making her free, too, but her mother's former owner refused to grant the child freedom and kept her as a slave.

The voices are of Missouri slaves who sought their freedom by suing their masters in court. VanderVelde is helping to bring their voices back by chronicling the 250 so-called freedom suits that were filed by Missouri slaves in state and territorial courts in the 19th century. There was Hannah, who says she was "treated with great cruelty and oppression by John Pitcher," her owner, after she had the temerity to sue Pitcher for her freedom. James Wilkinson was not only enslaved but a victim of fraud after his owner, Aaron Young, breached his agreement to let Wilkinson buy his freedom for $200. Four years after the last payment was made, Young still had not freed Wilkinson.

VanderVelde said the suits show that slaves attempted to use the courts to legally escape slavery to an extent people never knew before. "Our conception is that slaves either suffered or tried to escape," she said. "What we never knew was how many sought their freedom in court, and how many received it. When you read these lawsuits, you hear the voices of people rising up against enslavement in a way that's not been heard by Americans today."

She said slaves who sued for their freedom had four kinds of arguments: that they always were free and were being enslaved illegally, that they had been promised freedom upon their master's death, that they had paid part of their freedom already, or they had lived in a free state, which meant they were now free.

The most famous of these suits was brought by Dred Scott, a St. Louis slave who lived with his master for four years in Illinois and parts of Wisconsin Territory that are today Minnesota. Since Illinois and Wisconsin Territory were free, Scott argued that he was no longer a slave, even after his return to slave territory. The suit and its appeals led to the infamous 1858 Supreme Court decision that denied Scott and all blacks the rights of citizenship, prohibited the federal government from banning slavery, and set the stage for the Civil War. The Dred Scott Decision also said that blacks could not use the federal courts, thus shutting off most future freedom suits. Before the decision, though, hundreds of Missouri slaves tried to use the state court system to win their freedom.

VanderVelde said Missouri's relative youth as a state and still-forming character in the 19th century made it a logical place for such suits to evolve. Although it was a slave state, Missouri was a Western frontier state where attitudes towards slavery were more fluid than in many parts of the South, where slavery was a more rigid institution. St. Louis was also a booming river town, commercial center, and regional seat of federal government and law, bringing people together from free and slave states. As a result, many urban slaves were allowed to leave their masters' homes and walk the streets, run errands, even hold down outside jobs. In addition, many blacks in St. Louis were free, and some even owned their own businesses.

VanderVelde said she stumbled upon the papers while doing research on another project about Harriet Scott, Dred's wife and a partner in his freedom suit. Realizing she needed to know more about life for slaves and free Blacks in antebellum St. Louis, she started asking people in St. Louis where she might find more information. Her queries brought her to a city employee who had found the records of a half-dozen freedom suits over the years and had set them aside in a shoe box. Realizing what a gold mine of information the suits provided, she set about to look for more suits in the backrooms and hallways of the St. Louis court house, tugging out boxes, fighting off dust balls and cobwebs, and sifting through files that hadn't been opened in more than 100 years. "We're very lucky this valuable material wasn't thrown out," VanderVelde explained.

Since then, the files of 190 of the freedom suits have been discovered. The papers are yellowed and crumbling, some so badly they have been sent out to a specialist for preservation. Since the typewriter had not yet been invented, the motions, depositions, jury instructions and verdicts are all handwritten, often in an illegible scrawl. The Missouri State Archivist is putting them on microfilm and scholars from across the country are reviewing them. VanderVelde said she doesn't know yet how many of the suits resulted in a slave's emancipation, but said the number will be "significant."

VanderVelde is writing a book about the suits that she hopes to finish by the end of the summer. In addition, the suits have provided her with numerous new research opportunities, such as the connection between freedom suits and escaped slaves ("what made a slave decide to run or when to sue?"), the evolving relationship between courts and jails, and the evolution of the legal system on the frontier.

The work has not only brought back voices of people yearning for freedom, it has also generated national attention for VanderVelde, who has been contacted by film makers about her work and was written about in the Los Angeles Times.

VanderVelde said it's also been some of the most fulfilling research she's ever done.

"These documents are precious," she said. "I'm overwhelmed by a sense of awe when reading these, the same kind of sense as when I see prehistoric cave paintings."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010, tom-snee@uiowa.edu.