A University of Iowa law professor has stumbled across some 19th century legal documents in a dusty box, forgotten in a Missouri courthouse basement, which she thinks weave a wonderful story of perseverance and civil rights. Professor Lea VanderVelde says the cases all involve slaves who were suing their masters to try to gain their freedom.VanderVelde is sifting through about 250 so-called freedom suits, many of them documented on yellowing, crumbling paper well over 100 years old. That was long before computers or typewriters, so all of the depositions, motions, jury instructions and verdicts are hand-written. The information is being transcribed and she thinks the evenutal book she’s creating will be one that tells an important story.VanderVelde says virtually all of the slaves signed their legal documents with an “X” and of all the freedom cases she’s reviewed, only one bore a slave’s signature. She says the court cases contain the slaves’ stories which have been largely forgotten and were not recorded in many other places. She says court recorders diligently took down the words the slaves uttered on the stand and documented their stories.She says the documents are “precious” and she finds herself overwhelmed with a sense of awe when reading them, “the same kind of sense as when I see prehistoric cave paintings.” She hopes to get the book published by late 2004.
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