Cries for Freedom Still Ring

Times Staff Writer

The creamy linen pages are creased and torn, smudged with grease or sweat. The ink has faded to sepia. A squashed fly is smeared on the edge of one sheet.

Through these tattered documents, the unheard voices of America's slaves call out for justice.

Tempe complains in 1818 that her master has failed "to supply her with clothing necessary for comfort and decency." Ralph, in 1830, expresses "fear that James and Coleman Duncan will take me by force from this place and sell me." Daniel, in 1835, states simply that he is "entitled to his freedom."

Winny speaks, and Celeste, and Milly, Arch and Anson and Matilda, Charlotte and Julia, Jerry, Rachel. These were men and women who had no last names, who could not read or write, who were bought and sold like livestock. Yet, in a remarkable display of courage and desperation, they and hundreds of others sued for their freedom in the white man's court.

Their stories, their voices, are emerging now as Missouri state archivists sort through 4 million court documents that had been stashed away in metal cabinets, untouched since the Civil War.

Among heaps of musty affidavits about contract disputes and unpaid debts, the archivists have uncovered 283 "freedom suits" filed in St. Louis from 1806 to 1865.

Decades before Dred Scott became the most famous slave to sue for freedom, the imposing, domed courthouse here echoed with the defiant voices of Tempe, of Ralph, of so many others who refused to accept their bondage. They dictated their petitions to lawyers or clerks and signed them with faltering Xs in black ink. "He has frequently abused and beaten her, particularly yesterday." "Unlawfully an assault he did make in and upon her."

Before this cache of documents was discovered, historians had no idea how many slaves had put their faith, and their fates, in the courts. They thought Dred Scott was an anomaly. Now, they are uncovering evidence of an underground grapevine that passed word about the freedom suits from slave to slave, emboldening men and women and even teenage children to sue.

Dozens won their cases, persuading juries of 12 white men to set them free. A few even won damages against their masters.

"This is a stunning find. It's just phenomenal," said Lea VanderVelde, a law professor at the University of Iowa who is writing a book on the freedom suits.

She describes 19th century St. Louis as a frenetic boomtown in which many slaves roamed the streets largely unsupervised. In the Deep South, slaves were isolated on their plantations. Here, they were often ordered to run errands, to unload parcels on the docks, to help a tradesman in town or to do the laundry at a local hotel. Some were even sent to the free territory of Illinois to labor in the salt mines, though their masters kept their wages.

The relative freedom of movement allowed slaves to mingle with one another and with the free blacks who worked on the river steamboats or owned barbershops in town. They got together as well at regular Friday night parties, dubbed "Negro balls," and at church on Sunday. Every meeting gave them an opportunity to swap news of friends who had successfully sued for freedom, to exchange tips about the best lawyers or most sympathetic judges.

The grapevine worked so well that whites raged, filling newspapers of the 1830s and '40s with rants about how freedom suits were subverting discipline among their slaves.

"You get a sense of how difficult it was for the state to maintain the institution of slavery. People want freedom," said David Konig, a history professor at Washington University. "Their language in these lawsuits is not supplicating. They're not coming into court on their hands and knees. They're demanding."

The ink-blotched pages, some full of cross-outs and scribbled insertions, speak to the well-documented atrocities of slavery: A child sold downriver. A master quick with whippings. But they give voice as well to the more private horrors: the tension that free blacks felt in a slave state, knowing that at any moment they might be seized; the anguish of a slave who toiled for years to buy her freedom, only to have the master renege on the deal.

"I see a screenplay every time I read one of them," said Mike Everman, the archivist in charge of the project.

In one of many wrenching documents, a black man named Thornton Kinney tells a judge in 1853 that he has always been a free man -- but that he discarded the papers that proved his status because "they were so worn and mutilated that no one could decipher them."

Kinney was dictating from the jail of a slave trader, who had snatched him when he returned to the United States from a five-year stay in the free African colony of Liberia. "He is about to be ... sold into bondage," his attorney reported. He pleaded for time to find witnesses, promising that "the most respectable people ... in Charlottesville, where he was born and raised," would be able to affirm that Kinney "was born free and has ever been so."

The verdict was not recorded.

For a century and a half, Kinney's case sat untouched with all the others in metal "till drawers," which resemble a giant library card catalog. The court clerk in St. Louis maintained custody of the documents but rebuffed most scholars' requests to explore them, saying they were not well organized.

When a newly elected court clerk took office several years ago, state archivist Kenneth Winn asked again to see the files. To his delight, the clerk invited him to restore and organize the collection. With a $175,000 federal grant and a list of local college students willing to work for credit, Winn opened up a preservation lab a few blocks from the courthouse.

There, in a spare, warehouse-like office, archivists, interns and volunteers spend their days unfolding yellowed documents, brushing off coal dust and re-humidifying the paper to make it less brittle. With a metal spatula, they scrape away the sticky red wax used to seal the pages together.

Once they have restored the files, they read them, hunching close to decipher the slapdash scrawls and looping calligraphy. Some of the documents appear to be direct transcriptions of slaves' testimony. Others have been translated into the stilted legal language of the time.

The most famous of the names they have come across is Dred Scott, who sued for freedom in 1846 on the grounds that he had lived for years in free Northern states with his master, an Army surgeon. Scott won in circuit court. The case was appealed again and again until, in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against him.

Blacks were "so far inferior, they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect," Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote, ruling that Scott had no right even to sue for his freedom. That decision helped propel the country to Civil War.

Recognizing the importance of the case, the federal government recovered and preserved all Dred Scott documents in the 1920s. But no one thought to scour the St. Louis courthouse for similar cases.

The recent discovery in those battered till drawers has put the Scott case in context as one of the last of the freedom suits to be filed. The documents also make clear just how shocking Taney's ruling must have been to blacks in St. Louis, because even though Missouri was a slave state, blacks enjoyed solid access to the courts here.

For decades, the state set aside taxpayer money to hire lawyers for slaves who sued for their freedom. (Virginia, another slave state, offered a similar program.) The best attorneys would travel hundreds of miles, at state expense, to get sworn statements from witnesses. Some case files include hundreds of pages of testimony and legal briefs.

The effort was all the more astounding because, as one case from the 1830s noted: "The true doctrine in Missouri is that black persons of this state are presumed to be slaves until the contrary appears

Yet Missouri wrote into law several safeguards to protect slaves from retaliation when they sued. Slave owners named as defendants were required to put up a substantial bond, as much as $2,000. They would forfeit the money if they failed to show at trial, or if they sold their slaves downriver before they had their day in court.

As further protection, judges sometimes took custody of slaves while their cases were pending, housing them in the drafty city jail and hiring them out to do odd jobs, with the understanding that they would keep their wages if they won their cases. The lockup might have saved them from retaliation by angry masters, but it was a trial all its own. "I was shut away from the sunlight," one litigant, Lucy Delaney, wrote of her 17 "long and dreary" months behind bars.

Slaves had three legal grounds for suing. Some claimed they were free men or women who had been kidnapped into slavery. Others insisted they had bought their freedom or been emancipated by a kind master.

By far the most common argument was the one Dred Scott set forth: That when a master brought a slave into free territory, the bonds of slavery crumbled automatically -- and could not be reasserted when the master moved back into a slave state.

Missouri courts accepted that argument throughout most of the 1820s and '30s. Under a doctrine known as "once free, always free," a slave who could prove he had lived at least a few weeks in free territory had a good shot at winning.

A bold script swirling with curlicue flourishes announces one such verdict, in favor of Winny, a "free woman held in slavery" who sued in the early 1820s.

"We the jurors find for the plaintiff and [award] damages to the amount of $167.50." It is signed: "John Simmons, Foreman."

As the political climate in Missouri tilted ever more supportive of slavery in the decades just before the Civil War, it became tougher for slaves to win. The state quit providing free lawyers in 1856. After the Dred Scott ruling, the freedom suits all but stopped.

Historians from Washington University last month put all 283 cases online at www.stlcourtrecords.wustl.edu. The site contains the original documents for every trial, down to the scraps of paper that clerks scribbled on to certify they had served a subpoena (usually by reading it aloud, because most witnesses, both black and white, were illiterate).

Now that the documents are accessible, historians have a long list of topics for study. They want to learn more about the jurors, the judges and the lawyers. They want to understand how the underground grapevine worked.

And they would love to know more about the men and women whose voices ring so clearly across the years -- women like Tempe, who complained in 1818 about her lack of decent clothes.

Tempe's spirit leaps through the 41 neatly handwritten pages in her court file. While most slaves accused their masters of generic "false imprisonment," Tempe got her lawyer to write down every injustice.

She told the court in her initial pleading that her master, Risdon Price, "wounded and ill-treated" her on Aug. 31, 1817, assaulting her "with force of arms" to the point "where she was in great danger of losing her life."

She then filed another affidavit complaining that Price "has for a considerable time past subjected her to very harsh and cruel treatment ... that her duties are rendered much more hard than that of the other servants in the family, and that she is seldom spoken to by Mr. Price except in ill humor and abusive language."

For good measure, she had her husband, Labon, back her up. Labon, described in court papers as "a free man of color," told the court he had "great reason to believe" that Price was about to sell his wife downriver.

"She is almost constantly chid[ed] and accused," Labon testified, "notwithstanding her best endeavor to give satisfaction."

Tempe argued that she should be free because she had worked for years in the North for another master before Price took her to St. Louis. She demanded $500 in damages.

Her case took three years to make it through the court. In 1821, Tempe finally won her freedom. The jury awarded her damages of 1 cent.

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