Through the Grapevine – Grégory François

Through the Grapevine: Legal Knowledge and the
Slave Community during the Antebellum Era

When I was at the University of Mississippi, I attended a conference in memory of Martin Luther King. The speakers presented subjects that dealt in different ways with the question of activism towards better rights and the place of the Black community in the American society. Anne Twitty, professor of history, was the first speaker with a presentation of the St. Louis freedom suits. In the American Confluence, a vast region that extended from Ohio to the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys, more than three hundred slaves reached the St Louis circuit court as they filed freedom suits. If slaves were the property of slaveholders, a Missouri territorial statute dating back to 1807 (Missouri was still part of the Louisiana territory then) made it legal for a slave to “petition the general court or any court of common pleas” for reasons such as “assault and battery, and false imprisonment.” [1] The statute became a state law in 1824 once Missouri had reached statehood. Professor Twitty then explained how slaves sued for their freedom, successfully or not, by pledging that they were wrongfully held in bondage. The link between freedom suits and King’s engagement a century later was evident: manipulating the legal system successfully to their advantage was not a novelty for Blacks in the South. Their ancestors had indeed done so more than a century before. The most famous case was that of Dred Scott, who claimed that he and his wife should be granted freedom because they had lived in non-slave states for four years. Scott’s lawsuit failed as the Supreme Court ruled that he would remain a slave because he was not a citizen and could not legally sue in court. Scott’s 1857 ruling repealed the 1824 Missouri state law, thus bringing an end to all further freedom suits.
Professor Twitty started her presentation with a reference to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, which portrayed Scott as “an increasingly feeble person, a man whose real master was in fact his much younger wife.” Nevertheless, the reporter implied that Scott knew a great deal about the law. He talked about his affair “with the ease of a veteran litigant” but “not exactly in technical language.” [2] The reporter suggested that Scott’s knowledge had been based on his own experiences. He had, indeed, travelled considerably, which helped him to develop a better common sense through much information picked up. Scott, professor Twitty explained, was hardly the only enslaved plaintiff who had absorbed legal knowledge and attempted to deploy it to his own advantage. Enslaved people were aware of all the legal reasons they could argue for their freedom. These fall under three situations. First, if the slave was taken to a territory or a state where slavery was not allowed. Second, if the slave was held in bondage after being legally freed in a will or any other formal document. Third, if the mother of a child held in bondage was not legally a slave, then the child could be freed. However, to file a suit in court was not easy, for slaves had the burden of proof upon them, as in any court case. They had to collect evidence through written documents or witnesses and to find a lawyer who could file a demand to the circuit court.
Still, records from many St. Louis suits suggest that enslaved plaintiffs were often active participants in their cases and knew how to manipulate the legal system for their own benefit. Twitty took as an example one plaintiff by the name of Polly Wash, who had made the journey across the Mississippi river to Madison County, Illinois, to make sure that her attorney collected the depositions she needed in order to prove her case. Her suit was filed in October 1839, but Wash’s trial was only held in 1843. Although she could not testify on her own behalf, for the law prohibited slaves to testify in court against Whites (nor could free Blacks), she did attend the court when the depositions were given. The Wash case lasted for four years, but eventually ended with her freedom. A year later Wash managed to free her daughter, in another freedom suit, claiming that her daughter was born a dozen years earlier, at a time when Wash should have been considered free.
There is no better example of a role a slave might play in developing a freedom suit than in Dorinda’s letter, written in 1826. [3]


She had petitioned for her freedom in the St Louis circuit court just a few months before. While her case was pending, Dorinda’s master, Avingdon Phelps, removed her from the court’s jurisdiction by transporting her to Clarksville, Missouri, thus violating the court’s order to keep her in St. Louis County. She wrote a shrewd letter to provide her attorney, Hamilton Gamble, with the information he needed to ensure that her master would be held accountable for his actions. Rejecting the plaintive vocabulary of the supplicant, Dorinda supplied the details of her detainment in calm straightforward manner: “Sir I wish to inform that Mr Phelps is trying his best to keep me a slave, he has got me out of the county […] and says that he will keep me out of your reach if possible.” Worried that Gamble might abandon her case, Dorinda then attempted to shame him into continuing his efforts, explaining she hoped that Gamble would feel obligated “to do the more for [her].” To spur Gamble to action she also provided a reminder of the prior court ruling: “You know that he [Mr Phelps] was ordered by the court not to fetch me out of the county where the court sets.” Dorinda’s letter and the actions of Polly Wash and those who named sham defendants suggest that slaves were relatively well informed about the law.
If the vast majority were illiterate and none had received formal legal training, some slaves undoubtedly possessed a complex understanding of slave statute and proved an intellectual depth at using their knowledge to earn their freedom in courts. But how they learned about the law is more difficult to trace. Twitty’s assumption is that legal knowledge in the American Confluence was promiscuous, as Scott’s journeys in other states proved to some extent. Indeed, slaves who travelled with or without their masters to the supposedly free soil of the Northwest Territory quickly learned how tenuous the institution of slavery truly was. Twitty noted that “in South Eastern Illinois slavery was rarely accepted, while in other regions communities sought to eradicate the institution.” Consequently, White residents of the Northwest Territory were an important source of information about the law. Some attested of a specific maximum length of time for a slave to remain in a given state without becoming free. For instance, one deponent recalled that a slaveholder was warned by his neighbors that a slave “should not be in Illinois for more than sixty days at a time.” [4] Another offered more general advice, like John Crenshaw, who told a slaveholder that “his negro would get free if he stayed in the state of Illinois.” If such counsel appeared to be almost entirely directed at slaveholders, Twitty remarked that it seemed unlikely that a slave remained ignorant of the fact that a lengthy stay on free soil might result in her or his freedom.
In addition to learning about the law from residents in the American Confluence, slave plaintiffs also relied on one another. To argue this, Twitty referred to an article published by a certain Topaz that condemned the complicity between slaves in their efforts to share information about freedom suits:

Tom wants his freedom, and sallies in quest of legal advice; he states his case, and right or wrong, is flattered to proceed. Pleased with his prospects, he brags to Dick, who after a little scratching of the bump of his reminiscences, takes a notion he has a right to freedom too […] Fired with untried hope, Dick flies to Ned… Ned catches flame and communicates it to Big Bill–Big Bill to little Jim, and little Jim to everything that wears wool. [5]

Although depicted in a trivial manner, this passage from the Missouri Argus (1837) confirms that legal knowledge did spread through the slave community. This word of mouth transmission of information was once described by Booker T. Washington in his autobiography Up From Slavery as the “Grapevine Telegraph.” Indeed, slaves from the Antebellum South shared all kinds of information using this informal process: songs, biblical knowledge, stories, news from the war, or any sort of rumor. The well-known expression “to hear it through the grapevine,” used when referring to unofficial information circulating around, could come from slaves using this word to mouth process. But unlike Twitty, some historians claim it refers to the communication system erected during the Civil War: army intelligence would string telegraph wires from tree to tree, thus resembling vines, to communicate information. One certainty is that it was easily appropriated by the Black community as in Washington’s autobiography and, sixty years later, in the Soul classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” interpreted successively by Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips.
Professor Twitty then explained how the slave family helped in the use of legal knowledge: information about the law was regularly passed on to family members and those with other long-standing or intimate relationships. Twitty told that “women and their children or grand children frequently sued for their freedom concurrently, such that their cases constitute nearly a third of all the freedom suits that were filed at the St Louis circuit court.” Some slaves petitioned alongside a sibling or a spouse. Even those who were not related by blood or marriage often had ties to others who had previously sued for their freedom. For instance, the seven slaves of Jesse Duncan had petitioned for their freedom in the St Louis circuit court between 1829 and 1836. Of the seven Duncan “brothers” only three were true blood relatives. And despite no longer sharing a residence, the plaintiffs surely communicated with one another about how to petition for their freedom, not only because they filed suits in succession of one another but because five of them employed the same attorney to defend them. [6] Such evidence is indicative of the dense network that slaves relied upon for the information that they obtained about the law. Therefore, Twitty concluded, “constructing legal knowledge was often a collective process.”
With or without these communal efforts to construct legal knowledge, enslaved plaintiffs also relied on their own past experience with the law. Slaves who failed to win their first suit were often willing to appeal the court’s verdict or file additional petitions. Filing two, three or even four successive freedom suits ensured that enslaved plaintiffs were more likely to obtain positive results. In particular, plaintiffs learned the importance of naming the appropriate defendant, and ensuring that he or she resided in St. Louis, which was a difficult task in a city where a significant portion of the slave population was hired out. Indeed, Twitty remarked that some slaves did not manage to figure out who their master supposedly was.
If the St. Louis circuit court was certainly the best place to negotiate one’s freedom, it was not the only court that received freedom suits. Professor Twitty mentioned a handful of slaves who had previously filed suits in another jurisdiction before doing so in the St Louis circuit court. For instance, Philis asserted that she had been awarded freedom from the Louisiana Supreme Court a few months before she was re-enslaved and filed another suit in St Louis. Moreover, Joe, Ralph and Dunky had already successfully filed in Illinois when they filed suits in St Louis. Finally, two other slaves who had petitioned for their freedom in St Louis circuit court ultimately filed again in other jurisdictions.
It was very interesting to hear professor Twitty draw on a collection of freedom suits to present the mechanisms through which slaves affected their freedom. Such evidence not only underscores the notion that legal knowledge can be constructed individually over time, but once slaves acquired legal knowledge and understood the process of filing a suit, they were susceptible to employ this knowledge again in other circumstances if needed. The slaves in the American confluent absorbed the law deeply, tirelessly seeking ways in which it might be used. Their understanding of formal law was shared through a dense, entangled network between slaves, former slaves, masters, White friends and neighbors. From these sources and their savvy determination, enslaved plaintiffs constructed and employed legal competence to serve their own interest. A few days before this conference, I had had the opportunity to attend a demonstration in memory of Doctor King in Memphis. The procession was spectacular, and I was surprised to notice how active organizations like Black Lives Matter are today. It was interesting to put into perspective Twitty’s presentation with what I had experienced at the demonstration. Today’s activism is still about building a community around values such as respect for diversity and the fight for equal justice.

Gregory François

M2 – Anglais

[1] Geyer, 210.

[2] Frank Leslie’s Weekly, IV, June 27, 1857.

[3] Dorinda’s letter can be found at, which I shared here.

[4] Thomas Ford, governor of Illinois from 1842 to 1846, mentioned the existence of such law in A History of Illinois from its commencement as a state in 1818 to 1847 (32).

[5] Wade, 257.

[6] Lea VanderVelde dedicated a whole chapter to the Duncan brothers in Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott (96-116).



Ford, Thomas. A History of Illinois from its commencement as a state in 1818 to 1847. Chicago: Griggs & Co., 1854. Web. June 28, 2016.

“Freedom Suits”, “St. Louis Circuit Court Records,” Missouri State Archives and Washington University in St. Louis. Web: June 10, 2016.

Gardner, Eric. Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print.

Gardner, Eric. “”You Have No Business to Whip Me”: The Freedom Suits of Polly Wash and Lucy Ann Delaney.” African American Review 41.1 (2007): 33-50. Web. June 27, 2016.

Geyer, Henry Sheffie. A Digest of the Laws of Missouri Territory the University of Michigan. St. Louis: The Missouri Gazette Office, 1818. Web. June 29, 2016.

VanderVelde, Lea. Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

Wade. Richard C. Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Print.

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