history of Missouri there is a strained and well-documented legacy of slavery and conflict over it. As the nation divided itself on the political/economic rather than moral issue of slavery, deciding status of statehood almost entirely on this one issue Missouri was caught in the middle. Yet, this reality had little if anything to do with the reality of life for black women in the state. Black women's lives both free and slave revolved around work and family. In many ways black women, and marginalized women in general are the first real example of a women's working class.
Black women worked in and out of the home either for themselves or for another and lived their lives almost unaffected by the political decisions, made to seem so important in retrospect. That which was important to real working black women was the economy and for that reason most free blacks lived in the cities, while many slaved lived in the rural areas. "Free Negroes tended to live in the cities because of the greater opportunities there. For this reason almost one half of Missouri's 3,572 free blacks were located in St. Louis." Beyond this general difference free black women and slave women in Missouri often lived parallel lives of hard work and sacrifice.
The Missouri Compromise, much debated entered Missouri into statehood as a slaver state and the difficulty overcoming this was immense. Despite his ardent abolitionist stand Freemont's Emancipation Edict was a largely political statement. "An edict freeing slaves owned by rebel Missourians was issued in 1861 by Major General John C. Fremont, commander of the Western Department.... President Abraham Lincoln revised the order and removed Fremont
He made the remarkable stand as a threat to violators of the law of this Union occupied state, living under martial law. The real emancipation of Missouri slaves would not be granted until the close of the war, and the passing of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. constitution. Yet, prior to this there were at least some free blacks in Missouri.
In Missouri, there was particularly harsh sentiment surrounding freedmen, there were few compared to other slave states "In 1860, there were 3,572 free Negroes in the State of Missouri compared to 114,931 slaves...The number of free blacks in Missouri was small compared to some other states. In 1860, Maryland, for example, had 83,900 free Negroes and 87,189 slaves; Virginia had 50,000 free Negroes and 490,865 slaves."
Those who were free were kept on a tight reign with laws and regulations requiring documentation of their freedom, often bought at high rates.
The Legislature then took it upon itself to declare that a free Negro, in order to reside in a Missouri county, had to obtain a license from the county court. The enforcement of laws relating to licenses was left largely to the discretion of the court. Legally, the license was good only in the county in which it was administered. If a free black moved from one county to another in Missouri, he had to submit proof of his freedom to the county clerk upon request. In order to obtain a license, the free black had to first post a bond that would be sacrificed if the court decided the black had become a menace to society.
The license granted to Celia James of Cole County in 1847, was a typical one. The Court ordered that Celia James "be and she is hereby licensed to remain in the State of Missouri during good behavior, and thereupon she enters into bond in the sum of three hundred dollars with John D. Curry as security which is approved and ordered to be filed." In other cases, the court demanded a bond of $500 or more.
It was up to the individual to protect him or herself from persecution, by repeatedly proving their identity as a freedman.
The burden of proof always rested upon the black because "color raised the presumption of slavery." Whenever a free black was brought before any justice of the peace, court or magistrate, such court had to be satisfied the black in question was free. If not, the court could commit him as a runaway slave or "according to the circumstances of the case, deal with him according to the law." That meant the judge could decide the case almost any way he chose and still be within the law.
Obtaining and maintaining the standard of proof was sometimes as difficult as raising the money they had needed to buy their own freedom, which for many was the sole avenue for emancipation from slavery.
Freedom payments depended upon several variables, among them sex, age, health, skills possessed by the slave and the availability of a ready market for slaves. Sometimes a slave might buy himself for trifling amounts. In 1839, Jonathan Ramsey freed his slave girl, Chaney, for $200. Ramsey, however, indicated money was not his only motive, that he was also prompted by "benevolence and humanity."
Yet, this was not always the case and some paid as much as 1,200 dollars, at a time when wages were miniscule in comparison to the lofty amounts sometimes asked by owners. Another way to achieve freedom would have been through the love of one's family.
Free blacks also purchased the freedom of their loved ones still held in bondage. Violet Ramsey first bought her own freedom by taking in washing and ironing. She then began to save money for buying her enslaved husband. Both of them pooled their resources and were able to purchase the freedom of their son, Elijah Jr.
Lastly the only other way for a slave to find freedom was through escape, punishable in most cases by death or severe maiming, yet Missouri's harsh conditions left many with this as an only option.
In Missouri, running away was also a popular means for slaves to gain freedom. The "underground railroad" ran around the borders of Missouri through the three free states of Kansas, Iowa and Illinois, and slaves took every advantage to break their fetters in this manner.
Yet, it is also true that these slaves did not ever become freedmen of Missouri, until after Federal Emancipation because there were few places they could hide without proof of their legitimate freedom.
The economic standing of freedwomen was often precarious and depended on many factors, including her involvement with a man, be he free or slave and his contribution to her household, yet the most foundational determining factor was of course the fruit of her own labor. In one narrative of interviewed freemen there is a synopsis of the life of the free negro that includes telling information about the lives of freewomen and men
Mrs. Mattie Lee, was proud of a garden that she had made entirely by herself with a potato digger; another, Mrs. Jane Thompson, was doing some sort of sewing. The mothers of most of the small children about the places were away at work and the ex-slaves, usually the grandmothers, were caring for the little ones during the day."
Though clearly written shortly after emancipation the words ring true, freewomen, mothers or not did not have the luxury of staying home, unless they brought work in form elsewhere. Oftentimes they must have done both, working outside the home and bringing home work as well.
Education was not a guarantee and many black women, free or slave had to rely upon the peace meal education they could gain from a limited primary education. Those who went further than this did so independently, unless a white benefactor supported them. "As early as 1817, fear of insurrection was so great Missouri's territorial government passed an act which made assembling even for the purpose of education, illegal for blacks." Education was scarce, for blacks during the whole century, those who did get any education, often did so at home with limited resources, but education for women was also scarce at the time, so black women had it doubly hard.
These early years were hardly kind to most black folks, though. State law, for instance, prohibited blacks from being educated on Missouri soil. To circumvent this policy, Rev. John Berry Meachum, an ex-slave who bought his and his family's freedom, opened the Freedom School aboard a steamboat anchored in the middle of the Mississippi River, which was under federal jurisdiction.
Religion was often a staple in the lives of both slave and free black women, but once again their involvement was dependant on the tolerance of whites as at some points in Missouri's history blacks were not allowed to assemble for any purpose and especially free blacks, who fearful whites believed might be using legitimate gatherings, like worship as a guise for plotting revolts. Black women were often very spiritual, both free and slave, and as one narrative put it even slaveholding whites believed they had a soul despite their desire to keep them in bondage:
remember that my mother use to gather us children around her…