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Brave Quests for Freedom

March 23, 2003

As if the cruelty of slavery were not enough, slaves in the United States had to endure a great slander: That they largely accepted and even embraced their servitude. Though that myth has been debunked, new accounts of hundreds of slaves suing for their freedom are a reminder of the indomitable spirit that couldn't be beaten out of them.

Most couldn't read or write and white law allowed them no last names, no dignity and nearly always, no freedom. But the voices of Missouri slaves, transcribed in faded ink onto court pleadings buried for more than a century, could not be more eloquent.

Tempe was one of the hundreds of these men and women who so audaciously petitioned for release from servitude on the ground she'd been "ill-treated." Her master "has for a considerable time past subjected her to very harsh and cruel treatment," Tempe said through her lawyer, in an 1818 affidavit. In 41 handwritten pages, Tempe asserted that she "was in great danger of losing her life." Three years later, a white jury agreed that she deserved her freedom -- and damages of 1 cent.

Tempe's story, from one of 283 "freedom suits" filed in St. Louis from 1806 to 1865, came to light only recently. All these years, the files sat locked away in giant metal cupboards, the bailiwick of an uninterested court clerk. When a new clerk took over awhile back, archivists and historians got their first look. Now, Washington University has put all 283 cases online at www.stl courtrecords.wustl.edu.

There are no "happy" black slaves in these tattered and ink- and coal-smudged pleadings, no passive, spiritual-singing field hands and no genuflecting, "Yessum"-ing house slaves. Instead, these men and women who signed their names with an X boldly argued that they had been kidnapped into slavery or had bought their freedom -- legal grounds for emancipation.

For 150 years, historians thought that Dred Scott was one of the first -- and certainly one of few -- slaves to pursue his freedom in court.

Scott appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1857 Chief Justice Roger B. Taney held that blacks were "so far inferior, they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." His infamous ruling ended the "freedom suits" and hastened the Civil War.

Scott's legal odyssey began in the St. Louis court, where he, like so many others, won the right to live freely because he dared ask. Americans can now see the Dred Scott case for what it really was, not a beginning but the sorry coda to these many tales of courage, of people unbent and unbowed.

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