Among the cases are many brought by slaves whose owners had transported them through free states like Ohio and Illinois on the way to the frontier. The largest number were filed in St. Louis, which at the time was a hotbed of litigation, thanks in part to a local law that recognized slaves as indigent and thus entitled to free legal help. The cases began in 1805, just after the United States gained control of the area with the Louisiana Purchase.
An early case was that of the Scypion sisters, who sued the most prominent family in St. Louis and won their freedom, on the grounds that their mother was Native American and so could not have been legally enslaved. Lydia Titus, a free woman living in Illinois, watched helplessly as white men kidnapped her five children and two grandchildren in the middle of the night, taking them across the border to the slave state of Missouri. Titus enlisted the law to prove that their capture was illegal, and eventually the family was reunited. An enslaved man named John Merry tried to buy his freedom for $100 and a horse, but his master took the horse and the money and kept John Merry as a slave—until John Merry took him to court.
Slaves risked jail time for bringing suits, because, as disputed property, they could be essentially impounded while the court made its decision. But jail also kept them safe from retaliation, as slave owners who were sued sometimes kidnapped the plaintiffs and sold them farther south. The slaves, meanwhile, got no support or encouragement from abolitionist groups back East. “These folks were on their own,” VanderVelde says.
Despite the odds, more than half of the decisions VanderVelde found were in slaves’ favor. Some plaintiffs even won cash settlements for work they had performed while their cases wended their way through the system.
“It’s surprising that any win,” VanderVelde says. “They have white judges, white [court-appointed] lawyers, white juries—the only thing that’s holding it together is the rule of law.”
That rickety scaffolding collapsed in 1857 with the case of Dred Scott, a St. Louis man who, with his wife and daughters, spent more than a decade litigating for his freedom. Scott is now known for the infamous Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sandford, which declared that people of African ancestry had no right to claim US citizenship and took away Congress’s power to regulate the spread of slavery. The decision, meant by justices to settle questions about slavery’s legal status, outraged Northern abolitionists and helped heighten tensions on the eve of the Civil War. In its ruling on slaves’ citizenship, the court also ended their ability to sue, slamming the door on what had been a means of escape and a source of hope for many.
“Dred Scott has always seemed like a foregone conclusion,” VanderVelde says. “Now, we see that it was actually a reversal of fortune, on a national scale.”
I t has taken decades and a great deal of legwork, but slaves themselves are increasingly being given their full due in the long story of their struggle. In 2007, Yale historian David Blight published two previously unknown slave narratives, unusual windows into the lives of people who escaped slavery. Trinity College professor Christopher Hager recently collected a book’s worth of rare documents written by slaves while they were still in bondage. At Harvard, researchers at the Center for American Political Studies are currently sorting through thousands of antislavery and antisegregation petitions sent to the Massachusetts state Legislature in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of them signed by former slaves.
“The portrait that we’re getting now is of a much broader swath of activities by African-Americans,” says Harvard government professor Daniel Carpenter, the center’s director. “Those who have told the story of abolition have tended to focus on what historians would call ‘white agency,’ not least because the people telling those stories were themselves white. Also, history is often driven by what kinds of archives are available. The availability of African-American voices in documents is more limited, and they haven’t been published, they haven’t been digitized.”
That is changing. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and support from the Massachusetts Archives, the Harvard scholars are creating a digital database of the petitions. By the time the work is complete in 2015, it will include as many as 6,000 documents. Meanwhile, VanderVelde is working with the Spatial History Project at Stanford University to create an online archive of freedom suits, which will also be available to the public.Continued...