The bravery of the Scypion sisters of St. Louis who spent 30 years fighting for their freedom in court

Stephen Nartey January 10, 2023
St. Louis Court House, circa 1851, where many cases in which slaves sought their freedom were filed. Photo: Boston Globe

In 1824, when Missouri authorities changed the laws to grant freedom to any enslaved person brought into any free territory, it breathed a new lease of life to many persons of African descent in St. Louis.

It also meant many African Americans had a basis to challenge the status of their bondage at the law courts. Over a 60-year period, over 300 civil suits were filed at the courts in St. Louis in demand for freedom from slaveholders.

One of the popular legal battles this change of law occasioned was the one initiated by the daring women of the Scypion family. They were the first to challenge the status of their captivity at the courts, shaking the status quo set by some powerful white families in St. Louis.

When St. Louis was under French rule, Marie Scypion and her sisters were considered enslaved. But, when power switched to Spanish control, enslaved Africans had the power to keep their families without any of them being sold by slaveholders, according to St. Louis America.

Even when Marie’s owner, Joseph Tayon, attempted to trade off her daughters, she protected them based on the new laws. When Missouri was bought by the United States, Tayon saw it as another opportunity to sell Marie’s daughters.

Tayon had thought because Marie had passed away, he would not encounter any challenge to profit from the sale of Marie’s daughters. But, Marie’s children, Celeste and Catiche, dragged Tayon to court by filing a joint freedom suit.

They were supported by Tayon’s own daughters who thought their father was wrong. Another daughter of Marie, Marguerite, also filed her own suit in pursuit of her freedom afterward.

All three sisters won their claim to freedom. But, the freedom was short-lived as it was challenged over 30 years in the courts. In 1834, a jury voted unanimously that the Scypion sisters had a right to be free under the laws of Missouri.

Another landmark case which followed the Scypion case was one that was filed by Harriet Robinson Scott. She asked the courts to grant her and her children freedom alongside her husband, Dred Scott, in the celebrated Supreme Court case Scott vs Sandford.

Dred married Harriet in 1836 at Fort Snelling, Minnesota after the two were certain of their love. The two relocated to Jefferson barracks in St. Louis where they made friends within the free black community.

Their legal battle started in 1846 after their slaveholder, Dr. John Emerson, passed away. Even though Dr. Emerson did not make any mention of Harriet and her husband in his will, his widow, Irene Emerson, claimed ownership of them.

Harriet challenged her captivity on the grounds that she had lived in the free state of Minnesota for nearly six years. The court case traveled to the US Supreme Court after Irene transferred the Scotts’ ownership to her brother, John F. A. Sanford.

Many believed the bad ruling the courts handed the Scotts was part of the factors that fueled the Civil War. Harriet and her family eventually gained their freedom after their case ended though they lost the court battle. Harriet enjoyed her days as a free woman in her own home with her loved ones around her.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 10, 2023


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