Guide to African American History

Supreme Court of the State of Missouri

The Supreme Court is the state's highest court. It reviews important, often controversial legal issues that affect Missourians and involve the state constitution and laws. The Court was created in 1821. For its first fifty-four years, the Court held session in various cities, rotating between St. Louis, St. Charles, Cape Girardeau, and Franklin. At various times, the Court also sat at Fayette, Bowling Green, Boonville, Palmyra, Potosi, Lexington, Columbia, Hannibal, Jackson, and St. Joseph. The 1875 Constitution provided a permanent seat in Jefferson City.

Record Group 600: Supreme Court of the State of Missouri, 1804 - present; arranged chronologically, numerically by court case number.

The Missouri State Archives holds over 5000 cubic feet of Supreme Court records, which include legal files of cases argued before the Court, both during the territorial period and after statehood.

The files and opinions of the Court are informative in what they reveal about African American history in Missouri. The history of slavery in Missouri can be studied in cases from the territorial era to the antebellum years. Some cases relate directly to the institution of slavery, while others include slavery, free blacks, and the slave code as matters secondary to the initial cause of suit. As in most slaveholding states, slavery was inextricably tied to matters of economics and property rights; protection of the owner's property interests was the primary concern.

The following are examples of suits brought directly by or against slaves or free blacks:

  • petitions for freedom

  • stealing slaves / aid to fugitive slaves

  • murder by slaves

  • larceny committed by slaves

  • property destruction, arson, rape, etc. committed by slaves

  • Indian slavery

  • free blacks / licenses

This second set of topics deals with slavery or life as a free black in Missouri as a secondary issue to social, economic, or property interests:

  • settlement of debt (use of slaves to settle balance)

  • breach of contract or fraudulent sale of slaves

  • murder of slaves (by persons other than owner)

  • replevin or detinue for slaves

  • estate settlements

  • loss of property; recovery for damages (caused by persons other than owner)

  • divorce settlements; marriage and dowry

  • ordinance and/or slave code violations

  • transport on steamboats, etc. (runaway slave laws)

  • mistreatment of slaves while hired out

The Missouri Supreme Court records include pertinent information about the institution of slavery in antebellum Missouri. Often, physical descriptions of slaves appear in estate settlements or runaway slave circulars; medical conditions of the slaves are discussed in cases of fraudulent sales; genealogical lines are traced in wills, as well as market value. In addition, Missouri law allowed anyone, white or black, wrongfully enslaved, to sue for freedom. These cases started at the circuit court level, but could be appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, as in the case of Dred Scott and many others. These various types of cases combine to give depth to the overall portrait of slavery in Missouri, from the view of the slaveholder as well as the view of the slave suing for freedom. For more information about the Dred Scott case, read "Missouri's Dred Scott Case, 1846-1852."

Supreme Court records can be used with a variety of documents from other collections, including the Governors' Papers, various series in the Secretary of State's Office, and the General Assembly. When combined, a more complete picture of antebellum slave-holding Missouri is revealed.

Post-Civil War court cases reveal the attitudes of white Missourians about the prospect of a new African American citizenry. Although the legislature did not pass laws segregating public accommodations, local segregationist customs were upheld in Supreme Court decisions, and many of Missouri's theatres, restaurants, rail transportation facilities, and more, remained segregated for much of the twentieth century. The fight for civil rights is reflected in many court documents through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries; a few cases are outlined below as an example of what can be found in Supreme Court records.

In Younger v. Judah (1892), a Jackson County man protested a Kansas City theater's policy of separate seating for African Americans. Separate railway cars for black and white passengers were the issue in Chilton v. St. Louis Iron Mountain Railway Company (1892). Both cases were decided in favor of the white owners, when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that owners of the segregated facilities had the legal right to adopt reasonable rules and regulations concerning the convenience, comfort, and safety of their clientele. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court voiced a similar "separate but equal" decision in a Louisiana case, Plessy v. Ferguson.

Missouri's 1865 and 1875 constitutions allowed separate schools for black and white children; the issue was argued in Lehew v. Brummell. The case began in 1887 when a Grundy County teacher refused to admit an African American student to a white school that had previously been open to all races. While the issue was debated in court, the Missouri legislature passed a law in 1889, ordering separate schools for African American children. The Missouri Supreme Court, in its 1890 ruling, stated that segregated schools were not in conflict with the United States constitution. Public schools remained segregated for the most part until the United States Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. However, institutions of higher education with segregation policies came under attack when Lloyd Gaines applied for admission to the University of Missouri's law school in 1936. Gaines' suit proved futile in Missouri courts, but in a landmark decision on December 12, 1938, the United State Supreme Court struck an important blow at segregated education, declaring that "separate but equal" laws did not suffice when there was no truly equal facility in existence for African American students. The court ordered Gaines' admission or the creation of a separate but equal law program.

The practice of racial housing covenants, which prevented selling or leasing property to African Americans, was challenged in Kraemer v. Shelley. The St. Louis Circuit Court, citing Missouri real estate law, dismissed the lawsuit, but the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the practice. An appeal was made to the United States Supreme Court, which, in 1945, did not outlaw covenants, but held them unenforceable, striking the first significant blow against legal discrimination in housing.