Missouri State Archives
Before Dred Scott:
Freedom Suits in Antebellum Missouri
This lesson, developed by the Missouri State Archives for fourth through eighth grade students, introduces students to original documents that enhance understanding of antebellum slavery in Missouri and a particular method of gaining freedom: the freedom suit. In combination with enrichment activities, the lesson engages students in an analysis of the documents and discusses the history of freedom suits from 1807 to 1846. Students will study two freedom suits and come to understand how they, and many others, built the groundwork for the Dred Scott case, which resulted in a United States Supreme Court decision leading to civil war.
There are seven components to this lesson plan.
- Antebellum Missouri
- History of Slave Freedom Suits in Missouri
- Original documents and background history
- Glossary of terms
- Guided discussion questions
- Enrichment/Reinforcement activity
- Suggested Readings and Websites
- To engage students in an age-appropriate discussion of slavery and freedom suits in antebellum Missouri
- To help students understand the way in which a slave could legally obtain freedom in Missouri
After this unit, students will be able to:
- Trace the history of freedom statutes in Missouri, from territorial laws to state laws
List the legal rationales used by slaves to pursue freedom in Missouri courts:
- Northwest Ordinance, 1787
- Illinois Constitution, 1818
- Missouri Compromise, 1820
- Define legal terms related to freedom suits
- Develop a timeline of significant events related to Missouri freedom suits
1) Begin the lesson with teacher-led discussion based on the prepared summaries "Antebellum Missouri" and "History of Slave Freedom Suits in Missouri." Explain the status of slaves in Missouri during this time and the variety of ways in which a slave could obtain freedom.
2) Distribute original documents and transcripts to students. Teachers may opt to use only one set of original documents (either Rachel or Ralph) or use the examples of both freedom suits for this portion of the lesson.
3) Students should read original document(s), referring to transcript when necessary. If using both sets of documents, divide students into two groups. Have one group study Rachel’s freedom suit and the other group study Ralph’s freedom suit.
4) Have students list the reasons, based on "History of Slave Freedom Suits in Missouri," teacher-led discussion, and summaries of the individual cases, why Rachel and Ralph were able to sue for their freedom in Missouri court.
5) Have students prepare a timeline based on "History of Slave Freedom Suits in Missouri" and insert relevant dates found in Rachel and Ralph documents. If there is an opportunity, have students consult an Encyclopedia, their textbooks, or the Internet for other important dates, such as the date of the Dred Scott case, the dates of the Civil War, or the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, etc.
6) Members from each group should present the original document, summary explanation, list of reasons, and timeline to the class.
7) Teacher will lead discussion, based on provided "Guided Discussion Questions." This discussion should focus on the pursuit of freedom from slavery in Missouri, the legal rationale behind Rachel’s and Ralph’s freedom suits, the number of freedom suits actually filed in Missouri courts (teacher may refer to the St. Louis Circuit Court Project’s collection of Freedom Suits), and why Dred Scott’s freedom suit was just one event that led to the Civil War.
8) Have students complete the fill-in-the-blank exercises and the word search puzzles, based on information heard during student presentations and teacher-led discussion.
Worksheets accompany the lesson to both reinforce the lesson and provide a means of assessment. Students read statements pertaining to the original documents and "fill in the blanks" choosing words from a list provided. Students then search for those words in a word search puzzle.
This lesson is targeted for use in fourth-grade classrooms during the study of Missouri history. However, it may also be used, in some form, for students in the 5th through 8th grades. It complements
broad topics, such as African American History, slavery, and the Civil War, as well as government and civics, state rights vs. federal power, and in-depth studies of landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases (Dred Scott