Collaborative project and website shed new light on slavery ‘Freedom Suits’ (VIDEO)​

Ability to interact with legal case documents of former slaves now just a browser click away

By Evie Hemphill, Washington University Libraries

http://youtu.be/AS9TENoirEwWUSTL video illustrates the impact and influence of the Freedom Suits project.

Molly, John, Nancy, Winny, Dred, Harriet — these former slaves all sued for their freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court long before the Emancipation Proclamation set them free. Now the case documents that record their stories and hundreds of others are just a browser click away.

The ability to access, search and interact with these unique resources marks the conclusion of the St. Louis Freedom Suits Legal Encoding Project, a major initiative for which the Digital Library Services (DLS) unit of Washington University Libraries secured funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), with the Missouri History Museum as an institutional partner.

The cases of African Americans suing for their freedom in the first half of the 19th century — some successfully and others not — are captured in the original legal documents and record books of the early St. Louis Circuit Court. But those paper files remained largely unknown and unexamined until about 20 years ago, when a historian began researching and writing about the case records, comprised of many diverse legal documents covered in decades’ worth of coal dust.

This spurred the Missouri State Archives to curate and preserve the aging collection in the 1990s and, in the meantime, collaborative projects got under way among Washington University Libraries, the Missouri History Museum, the Humanities Digital Workshop, School of Law librarians, and other partners within and outside of Washington University, digitizing these important records so they could be accessible online to people everywhere. Those efforts have taken several forms over the last decade, with particular attention given to the documents that record the early years of Dred and Harriet Scott’s long legal battle for their freedom, a case ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled against Dred Scott in 1857, a decision that contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War.

As a result of the work made possible through IMLS’s $376,000 grant to the Libraries, the nearly 500 civil suits comprising the St. Louis Circuit Court records collection are now far more accessible online, with full-text transcription and searchability for all the cases and city directories, plus the opportunity for visitors to the website to enhance the resource by offering additional genealogical and historical data about the cases. The project homepage can be found at http://digital.wustl.edu/stlcourtrecords/.

“The idea was to come at this from two approaches — the first being accessibility to legal historians, and the second being genealogical interest, which was the rational for the inclusion of 20 city directories,” says Andrew Rouner, director of the digital library and project director. “The interactive aspect and the transcriptions are significant, making these 19th-century legal documents dramatically more readable, as well as much more searchable. This collection provides new means of understanding the roles of slaves, lawyers, abolitionists, the state of Missouri and others involved in these cases.”

In addition to making these materials widely available for historical research, the project has contributed to the development of a standard for the larger digital library community. In particular, the St. Louis Freedom Suits Legal Encoding Project involved the development of a model for encoding historical legal documents. Encoding enhances a digital text by enabling researchers to locate particular words, phrases and other valuable data within it. The challenge was finding a way to accurately and comprehensively encode the legal functions, genres and roles specific to the freedom suits while also making that model expandable for other legal domains.

“It’s been exciting to work on something that other people might use for a really long time,” says Shannon Showers, digital projects librarian. “The legal encoding standard we’ve developed can serve as a guide to other such projects in the future.”

The stories of individuals’ enslavement and pursuit of freedom, as told in these records, unfold across several regions of the country, exposing slavery as a nationwide problem.

“While the jurisdiction of the St. Louis Circuit Court was regional, the suits are clearly of national significance and scope,” Rouner says, “and one important function of this collection will be to disabuse the public of the prevailing belief that slavery was a problem of the South alone and not of the entire nation.”

As Kenneth Winn, director of library and public services for the Supreme Court of Missouri and project adviser, notes, unofficial slavery existed in so-called “free” states and territories well into the antebellum era. While this was especially true in border states, such as Indiana and Illinois, it also included far northern territories like Minnesota, where Dred Scott served as a slave for a number of years.

The new website is already piquing interest and seeing use by visitors, including a professor of history and geography at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. He learned about the online resource after contacting the Missouri State Archives about the freedom suits. He then contacted Rouner, who along with Showers presented the website and its features to the class.

The Lindenwood students now are completing assignments that draw on the new resource — and will also contribute more information to the project in turn. Each student is examining a handful of cases dating from 1835 to 1840 and then completing a paper about the people and businesses involved in those cases and how they relate to those involved in other cases. The students will provide information to DLS about each specific figure they examine, and DLS will use that information to populate the visualization graph on the site.

Steve Givens
Associate Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs
(314) 935-5408
David T. Konig
Professor of History and Professor of Law
(314) 935-9113