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Black Laws, Liberty Laws & Freedom Suits​

photograph of Dred Scott
photograph of Dred Scott

Black Laws, Liberty Laws & Freedom Suits

In the pre-Civil War Midwest, a 74 year legal war raged over racial equality, freedom and slavery in capitals and courts.

In the Midwest before the Civil War, a legal war over slavery and racial equality was waged in the region’s legislatures and courthouses.

Racist “Black Laws” in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri barred free African Americans from becoming residents.  Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin rejected the racial exclusion laws, but Ohio required black newcomers to pay a $500 bond.  Indiana required blacks residing in the state to register with government offices.  All Midwest states denied African Americans voting rights.  But Midwest legislatures enacted some pro-freedom laws as well, including personal liberty laws against the Fugitive Slave Act in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. 

African Americans in the early Midwest turned to the courts in the fight for justice and equality.  “Freedom Lawsuits” were one key tool: African Americans asserted their legal right to freedom under slavery bans.  The Midwest courts often agreed that African Americans “once free are always free,”  that any person brought to the region was automatically emancipated.  In one freedom suit, a black Illinois woman, Nance Bailey won her freedom, assisted by the young attorney, Abraham Lincoln.  Bailey’s lawsuit moved the Illinois Supreme Court to declare in that state, “every person was free, without regard to race . . . the sale of a free person is illegal.”

Anti-slavery lawsuits related to Freedom Suits included lawsuits against conductors of the Underground Railroad, and constitutional challenges to pro-slavery laws.  Several lawsuits in the Midwest challenged the Fugitive Slave Act’s legality, and in 1855 Wisconsin’s Supreme Court declared the Act unconstitutional.

The Midwest courts’ anti-slavery decisions moved the U.S. Supreme Court, dominated by southern judges, to rule that the Midwest slavery bans were unconstitutional.

In the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford case, Dred and Harriet Scott sued for theirs and their daughters’ freedom after living in Illinois and Minnesota, then part of theWisconsin Territory.  Despite winning their trial in the St. Louis courts where they then lived, the Supreme Court ruled the Scotts’ didn’t even have the right to file a lawsuit, infamously writing that African Americans had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The Dred Scott decision is considered the most egregious Supreme Court decision in U.S. history, and was a major contributor to the outbreak of the Civil War.

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