Browsing the spring/summer Oxford University Press catalog I see that Lea VanderVelde's Redemption Songs: Courtroom Stories of Slavery will be out next year. Cribbing now from the catalog description:
There is no more legendary case in American legal history than Dred Scott v. Sanford. An extraordinary example of a slave suing his master for freedom, it led to a devastating pro-slavery ruling by Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Supreme Court and helped precipitate the Civil War. But was it so remarkable? Did others fight for liberty in court?
In Redemption Songs, legal scholar Lea VanderVelde unearths the astonishing history of how slaves challenged the "peculiar institution" with that most American of weapons, litigation. The author, together with Missouri's state archivist and other researchers, found roughly 300 "freedom suits" filed in St. Louis between 1814 and 1860. More than 100 ended with the words, "Plaintiff be liberated and entirely set free from the defendant." Slaves based their claims on four grounds: they were Native Americans, previously had been free, had lived in free territory, or had a free mother. VanderVelde selects a dozen lawsuits from across this period for close examination; each opens a window on a closed world of oppression-and defiance. Here, for example, is the saga of Moses Shipman; freed by Revolutionary War veteran David Shipman, he fled from Kentucky to Illinois in the 1820s, was kidnapped with his family, and dragged back to St. Louis. Here, too, is the story of Leah Charleville, a wily survivor living in a shadowy world of illegality, playing off two free black men as her lovers and hosting a ring of thieves at her boarding house. Savvy in the ways of the law, she went to court four times, securing freedom for herself and her children.
With deep appreciation for the courage required for a slave to challenge a master in court, VanderVelde reshapes our understanding of border-state slavery and the impact of the seemingly powerless on American law.