- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

ST. LOUIS, Feb. 20 (UPI) — Missouri Thursday launched a new Web site featuring nearly 300 lawsuits filed between 1814 and 1860 by slaves seeking freedom.

The lawsuits were filed in circuit courts around the state. The Web site, stlcourtrecords.wustl.edu, was a joint project by the Washington University, the St. Louis Circuit Court and the Missouri State Archives. The collection is believed the largest of its type.

"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," the site explains. "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."

Some 4 million pages of circuit court documents were recovered from storage to build the Web site and include cases involving slaves Dred and Harriet Scott.

"This is a body of material in which Americans were continuing their discussion about what freedom meant, what it would mean to be free," said Wayne Fields, director of American Culture Studies at Washington University.

"The people who were bringing these suits were helping us define and understand freedom in a way that nobody else really could or did at the time."

The project was used to develop an online lesson plan for elementary schoolchildren.

"Using the documents left behind from these freedom suits, we can instill in Missouri students … the value of equality and the significance of the struggle faced by many to gain their freedom," Secretary of State Matt Blunt said in unveiling "Before Dred Scott: Freedom Suits in Antebellum Missouri."

"The richness and depth of African-American history in our state must be brought to the attention of our students because to celebrate Black History Month is one thing, but to truly learn and respect black history is another."

The documents on the Web site include petitions filed before Missouri gained statehood in 1821.

The site includes other documents as well, including cases related to explorers Merriwether Lewis and William Clark.

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