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In 1819, a black slave known only as Winny did something unusual: She took her owners to a St. Louis court and argued she and her children should be free. Winny contended that since she and her family had been taken to a state where slavery was illegal before coming to St. Louis, their continued slavery was illegal. A jury agreed and the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the verdict. Winny’s case is one of hundreds of lawsuits filed by freedom-seeking slaves now available in an online archive that offers a glimpse at what some believe is the genesis of America’s civil rights movement. The archive was unveiled Wednesday during a news conference at the Old Courthouse, where history’s most significant slavery lawsuit — the Dred Scott case — initially was heard in 1846. The St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project consists of some 280 legal documents filed between 1814 and 1860. It includes images of original handwritten documents in which black men, women and children petitioned the courts for freedom. “We are fortunate for this opportunity to recover vital pieces of Missouri’s black heritage from the circuit court,” Secretary of State Matt Blunt said. “The cases inspire us and awe us, even as they shame us as we question the morality of a free society denying basic rights to a segment of its population.” Cases were allowed in St. Louis Circuit Court because a Missouri law accommodated the pursuit of freedom under certain circumstances. As early as 1807, a statute stated that any person, black or white, held as a slave could sue for freedom. “St. Louis was an early hotbed for freedom suits because of its geographic setting as a frontier crossroads and its proximity to several free states and territories, but similar suits also were being filed in state courts across the nation,” said David T. Konig, a history and law professor at Washington University. Konig said the archive will help researchers understand the length of the struggle slaves faced, and the historical significance of the lawsuits. “These are the untold stories behind the nation’s first civil rights cases,” Konig said. The archive shows that Winny’s case established Missouri’s judicial criteria for eligibility for freedom: If a slave owner took a slave to free territory like Illinois and established residence there, the slave would be free. Students from Saint Louis University, the University of Missouri at St. Louis and Washington University are working under the direction of the Missouri State Archives to manage the archives. The records are digitized by a team at Washington University. Placement of the freedom lawsuits online is part of a larger project involving 4 million pages of St. Louis court records dating between 1804 and 1875. In the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court eventually ruled against Scott, saying in a ruling that pushed the country closer to Civil War that no blacks, free or slave, could be U.S. citizens. The Dred Scott suit was placed in the online archive in January 2001, attracting nearly 1 million information requests from visitors worldwide in its first year on the Web, Washington University officials said. Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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