The Entitlements of Freedom

January 9, 2018
The image is of a scene on St. Louis Court House steps, January 1, 1861, when a group of abolitionists bid deliberately low to undermine the practice of selling slaves

“The Last Sale of Slaves” by Thomas Satterwhite Noble. Source: Wikimedia

A United States provost marshal, a wealthy shoemaker, and one of the largest slave traders for the St. Louis market, these are the powerful white men Margaret Davis, a free black woman, engaged in a legal battle over the ownership of her daughter Patsey.

Margaret Davis’s first known owner in St. Louis, General Nathan Ranney, moved to the city in 1819 after climbing military ranks over the course of the war of 1812. Ranney purchased Margaret in 1835 and, shortly after, she gave birth to her daughter Patsey. That same year, Ranney sold Margaret and her child to a man named Augustus Evans, who was likely acting on behalf of St. Louis slave traders Alfred McAfee and Granville Blakey. The affidavits included in the case file suggest that sometime between 1835 and 1842, Oliver Bennett purchased Margaret and her daughter. Bennett, a shoemaker, established his wholesale warehouse, Oliver Bennett and Company, in 1833 and ran the company in St. Louis until he retired to the northeast around 1863. Bennett testified that he manumitted Margaret in 1842 but did not state explicitly what came of his title to Patsey.

A few years after Bennett manumitted Davis, her former owner Evans attempted to seize Patsey from her mother, likely with the intention of selling the young girl. Having secured her own freedom, Davis hatched a plan to wrest control of her daughter from the men who had owned and traded them both for decades. In 1850, Margaret Davis brought a suit against Evans, McAfee, and Blakey for the ownership of her daughter Patsey. The case was extremely unusual; Davis sued the slave traders based on a claim of adverse possession. In her petition to the court she explained that because her daughter Patsey had been in her custody for more than ten years, Davis was, effectively, the lawful owner of the child. Her case had been very deliberately constructed. The depositions in her case show that Davis was well connected in the community, and that the white people she knew were willing to support her legal claims. Witnesses for Davis affirmed her long-standing “possession” of Patsey by stating that they had either regularly seen Patsey in Davis’s care or that they had paid Davis the wages Patsey had earned in their employ.

Evans’s claim on Patsey trumped Davis’s proposed entitlement to her daughter, despite the strength of her case. The circuit court ruled that Evans’s property rights had been technically undisputed for fifteen years, despite the realities of Davis and Patsey’s lives. Although Davis lost the initial suit, she had the confidence of her attorneys and the resources to appeal the decision. Her case finally reached the state supreme court in 1853.

As a litigant in the Missouri courts, Davis was a contemporary of Dred and Harriet Scott. She brought her original suit in the circuit court in November 1850. In that same year, in the same court, the Scotts first won their freedom ten month before, but the decision was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court. Davis had the same luck as the Scotts with the sitting state supreme court judges Hamilton Gamble, William Scott, and John Ryland. In March term 1853, one year after reversing the circuit court decision in the Dred Scott case, the Missouri Supreme Court delivered its opinion in Davis’s case. Like its infamous predecessor, the opinion in her case closed an opening in southern law created by a black litigant. It read:

We see no reason for disturbing the judgment rendered below. The circumstances, as detailed in evidence, are such as forbid all idea of an adverse possession of the slave in controversy by the appellant. It would be hard, if Evans’ humanity, in permitting a mother to retain her infant child, should be tortured into an abandonment of his claim of right; nor should his justice, in suffering the child, after she was capable of rendering some service, to remain with her mother, in remuneration for her care during its infancy, be turned to his disadvantage [Davis v. Evans, 18 Mo. 249 (1853)]

Although Margaret Davis was unsuccessful, the ambition of her case raises questions about the legal, social, and political culture of the middle Mississippi River Valley border region. What remedies did the law make possible for black women seeking freedom for themselves and their families? Recent scholarship on freedom suits brought in the St. Louis circuit court have offered rich and generative insights into the insurgent black legal culture that existed in antebellum St. Louis. But Davis’s case forces historians to push those analyses further. How, for example, was a formerly enslaved woman able to build a case against one of the largest slave trading companies in the city of St. Louis? How did she convince two of her former “masters” to affirm her own claim of mastery in a court of law? How did she choose to build such a case in the first place? What were her true beliefs about the rights she claimed over her child?

When she brought her case in the circuit court in 1850, Davis sought to exercise her freedom and protect her family by asserting that she was entitled to the possession of Patsey. She petitioned as a free person and slave owner to defend her personal property, of her daughter, “a slave for life,” in a court of law. Davis’s suit is an artifact of black women’s radical antebellum freedom struggles, which fanned the flames of political discord over the institution of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War. It also exemplifies the complexity of family and freedom for black women in the slave South. Finally, it reminds historians that we must not rely on abstract notions of freedom to interpret all forms of resistance to the institution of slavery.

By suing for freedom in antebellum courts, black women like Davis, strategically manipulated the law in other ways to defy white men and women’s claims to their bodies and their children. Even though black women have, for centuries, been denied equal protection of their bodies, their families, and their property, Davis’s story and others’ illustrate that we still have much to learn about how they have fought to define the meaning of freedom for themselves, and by that fight have contributed to the making of legal knowledge and the boundaries of liberty and citizenship.

Alisha J. Hines is a PhD Candidate in History and African and African American Studies at Duke University. Her dissertation project, Geographies of Freedom: Black Women’s Mobility and the Making of the Western River World, 1814-1865 examines the politics of black women’s mobility in the middle Mississippi River valley throughout the nineteenth century.