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 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.