YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Cries for Freedom Still Ring

In long-ago lawsuits uncovered in St. Louis, slaves tell of their suffering. Dozens won release from bondage before all-white juries.

March 18, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — 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."

Los Angeles Times Articles