COLUMBIA — Kenneth Winn compared the find to something out of an Indiana Jones movie. For more than 150 years, the documents, folded into thirds and sealed with a red ribbon, were slowly covered in the dust of basement coal fires.
“To work with them, your hands were just black,” Winn said. “The majority of the case had never been opened.”
When Winn and his colleagues began going through the papers, what they found was a discovery of historic proportions. Deep in the archives of the St. Louis Circuit Court were more than 300 records of slaves in Missouri going to court and fighting for their freedom.
These "freedom suits" turned out to be the largest collection of such legal cases anywhere in the United States.
“This is like having gold,” Winn said, “but there is so much stuff that nobody cared about that it was a treasure hunt.”
Winn, director of library and public services for the Missouri Supreme Court, will discuss the "freedom suits" at 3 p.m. Tuesday in Jesse Wrench Auditorium in Memorial Union. The event is hosted by the State Historical Society of Missouri.
Suing for freedom
The St. Louis freedom suits contain 301 cases of slaves fighting for their freedom from 1806 to 1860. For the slaves who went to court, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.
“If you failed, you could be sold down South,” Winn said.
While slavery was still legal in Missouri, many of the lawsuits were based on the precedent that a slave was free from the moment they set foot in a free state.
In 1833, a case was brought on behalf of “Harriet, an infant,” after the owners of her mother, Julia, spent time in Pike County, Ill. Born in Kentucky and later sent to Missouri, Julia argued for the release of her daughter because of the time spent in the free state of Illinois. Harriet won her freedom as well as the suit against her owner for trespass, assault and battery, and false imprisonment.
Four years later, a woman known only as “Aspasia, a woman of color” was not so lucky. She attempted to sue her owner Joseph Rosati, the Bishop of St. Louis, when the keelboat she was working on traveled to Kaskaskia, Ill.
She lost her case, and remained in slavery.
Of the cases discovered in St. Louis, slaves won approximately half.
“The slave’s point of view”
While the cases provide a unique look at the legal system of the early 19th century, they also tell unheard stories of what life was like for the plaintiffs while they were enslaved.
It was nearly impossible for a slave to learn to read or write. This meant that most stories of slavery are based on the records of slaveholders themselves. The freedom suits, which include a mix of hand-written documents, court transcripts and newspaper clippings, are told from the point of view of the slaves.
The plaintiffs, often referred to as nothing more than “Ralph, a man of color” or “Mary, a negro woman,” gain a platform to talk about their lives under slavery and the lengths they went to gain their freedom.
“We have lots from the master’s point of view,” Winn said, “but not much from the slave’s point of view.”
To Winn, these cases are critical in showing the determination that slaves had to fight for their own freedom, a story that can be lost amongst the well-documented history of white abolitionists.
The freedom suits today
The public can view scanned versions of the original documents online. The hand-written suits are in some cases nearly illegible, but that should change soon.
The St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, a joint venture of the Missouri State Archives, the St. Louis Circuit Court and Washington University in St. Louis, are in the process of digitizing all of the freedom suits and presenting them in a searchable database. Winn hopes the project will be completed by the end of November.
Winn will be showing some of these documents and discussing the freedom suits in more detail during his Tuesday presentation titled “Taking Slavery to Court: Black and White Struggle over Freedom in Antebellum Missouri.”