The history of how slaves successfully sued for freedom.
The infamous 1857 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford reversed lower courts’ decisions and denied long-sought freedom to Scott, a slave. Vehement protest over the ruling contributed to the beginnings of the Civil War. In researching that case for her biography of Scott’s wife, VanderVelde (Law/Univ. of Iowa; Mrs. Dred Scott, 2009) discovered a trove of 300 court files in St. Louis, in which 239 litigants petitioned for emancipation. Defended by court-appointed lawyers, more than 100 of the plaintiffs won. How, wondered the author, did slaves learn that they could sue? What factors determined the outcome? Her meticulous research informs this illuminating history of a dozen of those cases. Claims for freedom, she found, could be supported on several grounds. Some petitioners claimed that they were free but were mistakenly taken as slaves. Surprising to VanderVelde, only three cases involved sexual exploitation, suggesting that such claims may have been suppressed. The largest claims, however, were based on residence in a free territory. According to the law at the time, any slave living on—or born in—free soil automatically was legally free. With national expansion in full force, some slave owners brought their slaves through free states north of the Ohio River on their way west; if they stayed in those states long enough, slaves were emancipated, even after they were taken elsewhere. VanderVelde makes palpable the bravery and fortitude of the men and women who sought freedom for themselves and their families. Sometimes, the suit was quick and uncomplicated, but many cases dragged on, and some owners defied the courts by kidnapping their former slaves. Slaves that had been handed down to new owners found themselves confronted by the complication over whom to sue.
The voices of petitioners, rescued from court annals, testify to a defiant struggle for freedom, empowerment and dignity.