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History of Freedom Suits in Missouri
The judicial system is the venue which offers legal recourse to correct wrongs, even to segments of society that, historically, were not recognized by the law as citizens. As early as 1807, under Missouri territorial statutes, persons held in wrongful servitude could sue for freedom if they had evidence of wrongful enslavement. The territorial statute was codified in Missouri state law in 1824 and remained in effect until after the Civil War. Most of the persons using this law to obtain freedom were enslaved Africans. Since their cases were all brought for the same reason, to obtain the basic right to freedom, collectively, historians refer to the cases as "freedom suits."
The law was necessary in order to distinguish legally whether a person was slave or free. If all Africans brought to the United States remained enslaved, the law was not essential. However, segments of the African population gained their freedom through manumission or were born free. This led to a situation where it was necessary to establish a procedure to legally determine the status of black persons in society, whether they were free or slave. The freedom statute provided the legal mechanism that made it possible for judges to determine free or slave status and established a measure of legal protection for free blacks and slaves living in Missouri.
Suing for freedom was not easy. Freedom suits followed a general, proscribed pattern. The statute outlined the requirements a slave had to take in order to obtain freedom through the judicial system. Suits included a petition to sue for freedom, a charge of trespass of false imprisonment, court approval of the suit, summoning of witnesses, depositions, and final disposition of the case. If the court approved the suit, and the plaintiff could not afford an attorney, one was provided for him or her at the state's expense. In 1845, the General Assembly ended the ability of slaves to sue as paupers.
In most cases, plaintiffs based their wrongful enslavement cases on residence in a free state or territory. Winny v. Whitesides (1824) established Missouri's judicial criteria for eligibility for freedom: if a slave owner took a slave to free territory and established residence there, the slave would be free. Winny's case for freedom was allowed under the provisions of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. The 1820 Missouri Compromise also included provisions to limit the spread of slavery. Under these legal mandates, a slave was free even if returned to slave territory, giving rise to the phrase "once free, always free."
There were many precedents in Missouri law upholding the "once free, always free" judicial practice - most of them originated from freedom suits filed in St. Louis. In addition to the cornerstone case of Winny v. Whitesides, the validity of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance was also upheld by the courts in decisions handed down in Merry v. Tiffin & Menard, LaGrange v. Chouteau, and Theoteste alias Catiche v. Chouteau. The idea that residence in Illinois worked a slave's freedom was upheld in numerous decisions, including Julia v. McKinney, and Wilson v. Melvin. Residence at a military post did not prevent emancipation, according to Rachel v. Walker. All these cases clearly established the doctrine of "once free, always free."
St. Louis Circuit Court Freedom Suits
For a variety of reasons, including easier access to information and legal advise, as well as a certain measure of autonomy from owners, a relatively large number of freedom suits were initiated in St. Louis. In that city alone, between 1806 and 1865, nearly three hundred enslaved individuals took legal action to achieve the fundamental right for freedom, including Dred Scott. The records that comprise the freedom suits brought forth in the St. Louis Circuit Court detail how such suits were pursued in Missouri.
Freedom Suits Film
This short Macromedia Flash film offers a glimpse into the pursuit of freedom by African Americans in St. Louis during the nineteenth century. While it does not answer questions about these cases because so many of the details remain a mystery, it introduces this group of people, the words they used in pursuit of their freedom, and the world in which they lived. The film includes excerpts from the cases themselves. It also includes photographs and other images that are not of the actual plaintiffs but help to illustrate this compelling story. Indeed, the very absense of visual materials reflects the goals of this project. Organizing these cases and placing them online constitutes a first step toward recovering the details of life at a time when freedom itself was not guaranteed.
The following links provide more information about freedom suits in the St. Louis Circuit Court:
Freedom Suits Finding Aid
View the Case Files