Free blacks in St. Louis lived in difficult circumstances. They found economic opportunity in service trades and on the bustling Mississippi river front. But Missouri was a slave state. Its laws discouraged manumission, restricted the movements and education of free blacks, and limited their civil rights. One contemporary said that St. Louis was "extreme Southern" in its "prejudices, interests, and feelings." In the 1850s, when Elizabeth Keckley bought her freedom, forces that sought to limit or reverse her freedoms were gaining ground. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the case of Dred Scott, who had sued for his freedom in St. Louis. The Fugitive Slave Law allowed federal agents to seize runaways even in free states, and free people needed documents, such as this Freedom License, to prove that they were not slaves. Shown here is the freedom license issued to Elizabeth Keckley.
Elizabeth Keckley's Free Negro Licence, 5 May 1859. Dexter Tiffany Collection. Missouri Historical Society.