The Slaves Who Sued for Freedom

From Amy Crawford at The Boston Globe:

THE CRITICALLY acclaimed movie “12 Years a Slave” follows the nightmarish story of Solomon Northup, a free-born African-American violinist who, in 1841, was kidnapped by a pair of con men and sold at a slave market. His ordeal finally ended when Northup’s wife enlisted a lawyer friend to help him do something it’s hard to imagine a slave could have done at the time: sue his captors in court.

The case was covered as a novelty in the press, and Northup’s memoir, published in 1853, was an instant bestseller. His story shocked readers and helped galvanize the abolitionist movement.

But Northup wasn’t unique in trying to escape slavery through the legal system. Historians have long been aware of scattered lawsuits brought by slaves against their owners or captors, including in Massachusetts. Now, it is emerging that there were many more such suits than previously thought.

Crawford notes that there are records of slavery litigation dating back to colonial times in New England, and as early as 1781, a Massachusetts slave won his freedom on the basis that all men have a natural right to freedom. And, Crawford writes, a trip to court even had some power in the south.

Most recently, historians have uncovered a new batch litigation files in Missouri. While these newly-found records appear to have gone more or less untouched after being filed, Crawford writes, Missouri was a popular place for litigation because of a St. Louis local law that entitled slaves to free legal assistance. Slightly less than half of the 301 previously-known suits filed in St. Louis between 1814 and 1860 went in the slaves’ favor.

Crawford makes it clear that going to court was a risky act for slaves in one brutal paragraph:

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.

Crawford’s article is based on the work of University of Iowa professor Lea VanderVelde and Manisha Sinha of the University of Massachusetts.

Read more at The Boston Globe.

photo credit: Danny Ayers, Creative Commons/flickr