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Suing for Freedom

Lea VanderVelde
Above, these 51 Xs—some of which are repeated—are the signatures of the slaves upon their petitions for freedom filed in the St. Louis Circuit Court.";s:

In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that a slave could not sue for his freedom. Many call this ruling the worst Supreme Court decision of all time. 

While Dred Scott’s story made the history books, the act of a slave suing in the courts for freedom was not that uncommon. “Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott,” a new book by University of Iowa College of Law professor Lea VanderVelde, dives into this complex and surprising history.

Due out in May, VanderVelde writes in “Redemption Songs” that approximately 300 suits filed by slaves petitioning for freedom came through the St. Louis Circuit Court. Remarkably, many of these individuals won.

The reason so many freedom suits ended up in St. Louis was that the city was one of the few places in the upper Midwest a court case could be heard. “St. Louis was an emergency room for legal problems in the early 1800s,” says VanderVelde.

While slavery was illegal throughout most of the Midwest, slaves could pass through or even reside in “free” areas for a finite amount of time before they were legally free. This law was a source of much litigation up until Dred Scott v. Sandford.

“Often people worked as they went west, and so they would stop for a season to work at a farm, to put their slaves to work harvesting a crop, planting a crop, or even just staying over a winter,” VanderVelde says. “It was that kind of residence that meant that they (slaves) were free.”

However, many slaves were ignorant of their legal right and remained enslaved for years. Furthermore, even if a slave knew they were legally free, suing was a daunting prospect.

“It was a feat of endurance. They had to consider that they would encounter retaliation even though they were supposed to be protected from it.”

Often women were more likely to sue for their freedom than men because slavery was matrilineal. While it must have taken incredible fortitude to defy her master, securing her children’s freedom propelled many mothers to file suit.

“In the 300 cases that I’ve managed…to discover that most of them are led by women, by mothers. They’re most often a mother suing for freedom and then a follow-up of her children also gaining their freedom based on hers.”

Such was the case with Lydia Titus.  Titus formally registered as a free person in 1814 after winning suit against her late master Elijah Mitchell’s widow, Jinsey Mitchell.

However, on May 22, 1832 a posse acting on behalf of Jinsey Mitchell arrived at Titus’s farmhouse and kidnapped six of her children and two grandchildren. Though the family eventually proved they were in free and had resided in Illinois for decades, the process took several years and during that time three of Titus children died .

Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 by the 13th Amendment. However, VanderVelde still draws parallels from her work to today.  

“When we look at the people in society who are most vulnerable, who are the least well off, and yet they have some basic human right. Unless we protect that basic human right it’s likely it will be worn away.”

Below is Charity Nebbe's Talk of Iowa interview with Lea VanderVelde on “Redemption Songs."

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa