In addition to enslaved persons, St. Louis also had a fairly large free black community. African Americans in St. Louis were able to live within the strict "black codes", which were harsh laws that applied to all African Americans, both free and enslaved. Many free blacks owned businesses that carted goods from place to place after they were off-loaded from riverboats. Real estate was also a business known to free blacks. Others owned large barber emporiums, some with real gold faucets, marble countertops and crystal chandeliers, which were used by all the important white men of the town. These barbers were able to gather information that their white customers discussed and pass it along to the black community. Many became so rich that they became known as the "Colored Aristocracy" of St. Louis.
By 1835 an African American church had started in St. Louis; Sundays were also days of rest for the enslaved persons, when gossip and news could be passed from one person to another, in or out of church. African Americans who were literate would read newspapers aloud to others at night or on Sunday. These circumstances made urban slavery unusual. An African American could acquire accurate information about nearly any subject, including how to sue for one's freedom.
Because slavery in St. Louis became less and less profitable as years went by, masters hired out their enslaved workers, usually for periods of a year at a time. This meant that the enslaved workers encountered a certain amount of uncertainty regarding whom they would be working for from year to year. Often, they were able to save a cut of their wages for themselves. This meant that after years of saving, they might be able to purchase their own freedom. Several St. Louis enslaved workers did just that, although it was expensive, an average healthy male enslaved person sold for about $500 in 1850, roughly $14,000 in today's money. In several cases, a father would purchase his freedom, set up a business, and save enough money to purchase his wife and children from the people that held them as property; he could then set them free legally.
Missouri slaveholders were worried about the rise in the population of free blacks. Many whites provoked incidents meant to strike fear into the hearts of free blacks, or to get them to leave Missouri. It was generally believed by slaveholders that free blacks stirred up discontent among the enslaved workers, and caused them to run away, slow down their work, or sue for their freedom if they were eligible.
Last updated: June 5, 2020