Polly Berry, also known as Polly Crockett and Polly Wash (b. ca. 1818 – d. ca. 1870–1880), was an enslaved African-American woman who on October 3, 1839 filed a freedom suit in St. Louis, Missouri, which she won in 1843 based on having been held illegally as a slave for an extended period of time in the free state of Illinois. In 1842 Berry sued for the freedom of her daughter Lucy Ann Berry, based on partus sequitur ventrem (the child is born into the status of the mother), which she won in 1844 in a case argued by Edward Bates, the future U.S. Attorney General under President Abraham Lincoln.
Polly Berry's life is primarily known through her daughter's memoir, From the Darkness Cometh the Light, or, Struggles for Freedom, the only first-person account of a freedom suit. The daughter published her slave narrative in 1891 under her married name of Lucy Delaney.
In the 1990s, the case files of these two suits were among more than 300 freedom suits discovered among nineteenth-century Circuit Court records in St. Louis. They provide some facts different from Delaney's account. The Missouri State Archives and Washington University have created a searchable online database of the freedom suit files containing images of the complete case files held by the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis & the Missouri Historical Society.
In her 1839 case, Polly deposed that she was held as a child in slavery in Wayne County, Kentucky by Joseph Crockett. When she was about fourteen, he migrated west and took her with him to Illinois, where they stayed for several weeks, despite its being a free state. Illinois as a free state held that slaveholders who brought slaves into the state for extended periods forfeited their rights to their "property," and the slaves became legally free. During that time, Crockett hired out Polly for domestic servant tasks, and she was known as Polly Crockett. Next he took her up the Missouri River for about five years.
Polly was sold to a Major Taylor Berry in St. Louis, Missouri. She married one of his slaves, said to be a mulatto, and they had two daughters, Nancy and Lucy Ann Berry. (Much of this information came initially from Lucy Ann's memoir From the Darkness Cometh the Light, or, Struggles for Freedom (1891), whose version of her mother's life was that she was born free, kidnapped and sold into slavery.)
Following the Major's death, his widow Fanny Berry married Robert Wash, one of three Missouri State Supreme Court justices. Fanny Wash died a few years later. Despite the provisions of Major Berry's will to free the slaves after his and his wife's deaths, Fanny's widower Robert Wash sold Polly's husband to a plantation in the Deep South. The Berry daughters reclaimed Polly Berry (also called Polly Wash at the time, in reference to her master's name) and her daughters from Wash.
Polly Berry prepared her daughters for escape. While Nancy Berry was accompanying Mary Berry Coxe and her new husband on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, New York, she fled successfully across the river by ferry to Canada, which had abolished slavery. There she first stayed with a friend of her mother's and settled in Toronto, where she married and had her own family in freedom.
The mother Polly Berry escaped in 1839, after being sold to Joseph M. Magehan, a lumberman, because of conflict with Mary Berry Coxe. She traveled as far as Chicago before being captured by slave catchers under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. They returned her to St. Louis and her master Magehan. She resolved to protect her daughter Lucy Ann, who was only 12 years old.
Once returned, Berry/Wash filed a freedom suit in the St. Louis Circuit Court on October 3, 1839, on the basis that, when younger, she had been illegally held as a slave in Illinois (Polly Wash v. Joseph M. Magehan). Her attorney was Harris Sprout. It was not until 1843 that her case was tried, but she successfully proved her case in court. While the case was pending, Wash was hired out as a laundress to earn money against her upkeep. Delaney's memoir suggests that Wash's attorneys proposed the strategy of filing separate suits for her and her daughter, to prevent a jury's worrying about taking too much property from one slaveholder.
Martha Berry Mitchell, another of the married daughters of the late Major Berry, claimed the slave girl Lucy Ann Berry as a domestic servant. Angered over the girl's lack of skills with laundry, Mitchell got into a physical confrontation with her, which Lucy Ann resisted. Martha and her husband David D. Mitchell decided to sell the young slave downriver. (Mitchell was the US regional Superintendent for Indian Affairs.) Before being shipped away, Lucy Ann escaped to the house of a friend of her mother.
Polly Berry (then known as Polly Wash) immediately filed suit on September 8, 1842 as a "next friend" of her daughter against David D. Mitchell. Because her own case had not yet been tried, as a slave she had no individual legal standing, but the law allowed her to file a suit on behalf of her minor daughter. According to the doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem, which assigned the status of children according to that of the mother, since Lucy Ann was born to a woman considered free at the time in Illinois, she should also have been free. The young slave was remanded to jail, where she was held for 17 months rather than being hired out, as was customary. Wash's attorneys were successful in ensuring that Lucy Ann Berry was kept in St. Louis, but it appeared Mitchell enforced her imprisonment. Usually enslaved prisoners were hired out, with the wages given to the owner.
On June 6, 1843, Polly Wash was declared a free woman by an all-white jury, on the basis of witnesses who testified she had been held as a slave in Illinois, where the law ruled slaveholders' forfeited their rights to slaves if they stayed in the state. This precedent of "once free, always free" had been set in the 1824 Missouri case of Winny v. Whitesides. Because Polly Wash had filed a separate case for her daughter, that case had to be heard.
Lucy Ann's case was not heard until February 7 and 8, 1844. Her attorneys argued that Lucy Berry's freedom was based on her birth to a woman who had been proven to be free based on having been held illegally in Illinois. Francis Butter Murdoch, the former district attorney for Alton, Illinois, prepared the case. (He had prosecuted the murder of Elijah Lovejoy in Alton by anti-abolitionists.)
Wash also gained the aid of the prominent Whig politician Edward Bates. Although a slaveholder, he argued the case in court. He was later appointed as the US Attorney General under President Abraham Lincoln. Murdoch handled numerous "freedom suits" in St. Louis. With Wash's case settled by the principle of "once free, always free," Bates was able to convince the jury that her daughter Lucy Ann Berry should be considered free as well.
As the scholar Eric Gardner writes,
"To Bates--as to the majority of the Missouri Supreme Court for several years--such a principle actually depended on recognizing and allowing legal slavery: if an individual African American was not "once free"--through birth to a free mother, residence, manumission, or other circumstances carefully specified in state law--then she or he had no legal right to demand freedom. This syllogism, of course, explains why Bates could be a slaveholder and still support Lucy [Berry] Delaney; this premise is why, he argues by extension, the jury could do the same."
The record of the decision said, "it is therefore considered by the Court that said Plaintiff be liberated and entirely set free from the Defendant and from all persons claiming by, through, or under him by title derived since the commencement of this suit." Lucy Ann was 14 years old. Her and her mother's cases were two of 301 freedom suits filed in St. Louis Circuit Court from 1814-1860, for which records were discovered in the 1990s.
Wash filed a second suit on behalf of her daughter, for $1000 in damages against David D. Mitchell for false imprisonment. The information in the two case files does not entirely agree with the account in Lucy Delaney's autobiography. By this suit, Wash and Murdoch may have been trying to preclude Mitchell from appealing the court's decision, in addition to seeking reparations. They later dropped the suit without trial.
Lives in freedom
Polly Berry lived with her daughter Lucy Ann for the rest of her life. At first they worked together as seamstresses. Polly Berry managed to visit her daughter Nancy and grandchildren in Toronto in 1845, and the younger woman offered to settle her there. Berry chose to return to Lucy Ann and her familiar St. Louis roots. She died without seeing her husband again.
More than 45 years later, after a life of civic activism, in 1891 Lucy Ann Berry Delaney (then married) published her memoir From the Darkness Cometh the Light, or, Struggles for Freedom. The only first-person account of a freedom suit, the slave narrative was devoted mostly to recounting her mother's struggle for their freedom from slavery. Delaney dedicated the book to the Grand Army of the Republic, which had secured the freedom of slaves throughout the South in its victory in the American Civil War. She described her adult life and full participation in religious and civic organizations.
It was not until the 1990s that the Wash and Berry case files were discovered. Although some—such as the Dred and Harriet Scott files—had been set aside, most freedom suits were filed by case number together with all the other circuit court case files; surviving indices generally listed them under the broad rubric of "trespass." Some suits had been filed against the leading families of St. Louis, such as Chouteau, Cabanné, Sarpy and Papin, who were slaveholders before and after the Louisiana Purchase. Under the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, the case files are available to scholars for research, and a searchable database with digitized images of each case file is online.
- "Freedom Suits", "St. Louis Circuit Court Records," Missouri State Archives and Washington University, accessed 4 January 2011 and 21 October 2012
- Wong (2009), p. 138
- Eric Gardner, "'You have no business to whip me': the freedom suits of Polly Wash and Lucy Ann Delaney", African American Review, Spring 2007, accessed 4 January 2011. Note: Murdoch filed almost one-third of the freedom suits filed between 1840 and 1847, all on behalf of enslaved persons.
- Wong (2009), p. 135
- Wong (2009), p. 141
- Edlie L. Wong, Neither Fugitive nor Free: Atlantic Slavery, Freedom Suits, and the Legal Culture of Travel, New York University Press, 2009, p. 132, accessed 26 January 2011
- "Freedom Suits", "St. Louis Circuit Court Records," St Louis City Circuit Court, Missouri State Archives & Washington University, searchable online database of cases & images of the case files from the Circuit Court of the City of St Louis and the Missouri Historical Society.
- "'You have no business to whip me': the freedom suits of Polly Wash and Lucy Ann Delaney", Eric Gardner, "'You have no business to whip me': the freedom suits of Polly Wash and Lucy Ann Delaney.'
- "Freedom Suits", "African-American Life in St. Louis, 1804-1865, from the Records of the St. Louis Courts", Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, National Park Service