Famous for Freedom Suits

15, June 2017
Black-and-white sketch of proposed Freedom Suits MemorialDrawing of the proposed Freedom Suits Memorial slated for installation in the St. Louis Civil Courts building. Image courtesy of Preston Jackson.

In 2013 the judges of the 22nd Judicial Circuit voted to create a memorial to the lawyers and slaves who litigated hundreds of freedom suits here in St. Louis. Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, Missouri’s legal system operated under a “once free, always free” policy. This meant that if an enslaved person was taken into a free state for more than a brief amount of time, he or she was free. If that person was taken back into Missouri later on but not released to freedom, Missouri law allowed him or her to sue for the civil right of freedom.

St. Louis was the most active venue for such freedom suits for nearly 60 years. More than 300 enslaved people bravely filed suits, facing great risk in the process: If they lost, they were likely to suffer painful retribution or be sold “down the river” to a more brutal owner in Mississippi or Louisiana. Local abolitionist lawyers took on these cases free of charge and tried them before juries of property-owning white males. Our city’s courts and jurors issued verdicts granting freedom to hundreds of enslaved people—including Dred and Harriet Scott. But that case changed everything.

Pro-slavery advocates had convinced the Missouri Supreme Court to reverse the previous verdict and ignore the “once free, always free” principle. The Scotts’ lawyers filed a diversity suit in federal court and lost before appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. Under the leadership of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney—who was in favor of slavery—the nation’s highest court used the case to establish "Negroes" as naturally subservient to whites and declare them incapable of ever becoming citizens. Because African Americans weren’t citizens, they couldn’t sue in federal court. On top of this, Chief Justice Taney added in his opinion that the Negro had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Color portrait of Dred ScottOil-on-canvas portrait of Dred Scott by Louis Schultze, 1888. Missouri History Museum.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in the Scott case was an attempt to completely and permanently end the possibility of citizenship and freedom for black people in this country. The ruling also essentially made freedom legally ineffective for former slaves because it deprived them of all the rights of citizenship, including legal means of fighting back against discrimination.

Language in the ruling deprived Congress and individual states of the power to regulate or restrict slavery. Many felt that the Court had gone too far, including Abraham Lincoln, who in his famous “A House Divided” speech remarked, "We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we will awake to reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State."

It soon seemed that war would be the only way to resolve the bitter political fight over slavery. The Civil War broke out in 1861 and lasted for four bloody years until the anti-slavery North prevailed. Ultimately, the slaves who bravely filed freedom suits—and the St. Louis court that recognized their right to do so—were on the right side of history.

—Judge David C. Mason, 22nd Circuit Court of Missouri

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