Lucy Delaney

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Lucy Ann Delaney
BornLucy Berry
c. 1830
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
Diedafter 1891
Occupationauthor, activist
Notable worksFrom the Darkness Cometh the Light, or, Struggles for Freedom
Frederick Turner
(m. 1845)
Zachariah Delaney
(m. 1849)

Lucy Ann Delaney, born Lucy Berry (c. 1830 – after 1891), was an African-American author, and activist, a former slave notable for her 1891 narrative From the Darkness Cometh the Light, or, Struggles for Freedom. This is the only first-person account of a "freedom suit" and one of the few slave narratives published in the post-Emancipation period.

The memoir recounts her mother Polly Berry's legal battles in St. Louis, Missouri, for her own and her daughter's freedom from slavery. For her daughter's case, Berry attracted the support of Edward Bates, a prominent Whig politician and judge, and the future US Attorney General under President Abraham Lincoln. He argued the case of Lucy Ann Berry in court and won in February 1844. Their cases were two of 301 freedom suits filed in St. Louis from 1814 to 1860. Discovered in the late twentieth century, the case files are held by the Missouri Historical Society and are searchable online.

Early life[edit]

For decades little was known of Lucy Ann Delaney beyond her [[memoir. In the 1990s her mother's and her freedom suits were among the brief case files found for 301 freedom suits in St. Louis, dating from 1814–1860. Related material is available online in a searchable database created by the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Project, in collaboration with Washington University.[1] In addition, scholars have conducted research into censuses and other historic material related to Delaney's memoir to document the facts.

Born into slavery in St. Louis, Missouri in 1830, Lucy Ann Berry was the second daughter of slaves Polly Berry (born Polly Crocket) and a mulatto father whose name she did not note. Their first daughter was named Nancy. Polly Crocket and Lucy's father (and the girls) were held by Major Taylor Berry and his wife, Frances.[2] Lucy said that Polly Berry had been born free in Illinois (a free state), but was kidnapped as a child by slave catchers and sold into slavery in Missouri.[3]

(In her freedom suit, Polly Berry deposed that she was held as a slave in Wayne County, Kentucky by Joseph Crockett, and was brought by him to Illinois. There they stayed for several weeks while he hired her out for domestic work. As Illinois was a free state, he was supposed to lose his right to hold slave property by staying there, and Polly could have been freed. It was on this basis that she was later awarded freedom, as witnesses were found to testify as to her having been held illegally as a slave in Illinois.[4]

When Delaney wrote her memoir late in life, she remembered the Major and his wife Fanny Berry as kind slaveholders. The major told Polly and her husband that they and his other slaves would be freed upon his death and the death of his wife.[2] After the major died in a duel, the widow Fanny Berry married Robert Wash, a lawyer later appointed as a Missouri State Supreme Court judge. When Fanny Wash died, the Berry slave family's fortunes changed. Judge Wash sold Lucy Ann's father to a plantation down the Mississippi River in the Deep South.[3]

Polly Berry became concerned for the safety of her daughters, and determined they should escape. Lucy Ann's older sister Nancy slipped away while traveling with a daughter of the family, Mary Berry Cox, and her new husband on their honeymoon in the North. Nancy left them at Niagara Falls, took the ferry across the river, and safely reached Canada and a friend of her mother's.[3]

After having conflict with Mary Cox in 1839, Polly Berry was sold to Joseph A. Magehan, but escaped about three weeks later.[5] She reached Chicago, but was captured by slave catchers. They returned her to Magehan and slavery in St. Louis.[3]

On returning, Polly Berry (also known as Polly Wash after her previous master) sued for her freedom in the Circuit Court in the case known as Polly Wash v. Joseph A. Magehan in October 1839.[5] When her suit was finally heard in 1843, her attorney Harris Sproat convinced a jury of her free birth and kidnapping as a child. Wash was freed. She remained in St. Louis to continue her separate effort to secure her daughter Lucy Ann Berry's freedom, for which she had filed suit in 1842, shortly after Berry fled her master.[5]

Trial and freedom[edit]

By 1842, Lucy Ann was working for Martha Berry Mitchell, another of the married Berry daughters. They came into conflict in part because of the slave girl's inexperience at heavy domestic tasks, including laundry. Martha decided to sell her, and her husband David D. Mitchell arranged the sale.[5] The day before she was to leave, Lucy Ann escaped and hid at the house of a friend of her mother's.

That week, Polly Wash filed suit in Circuit Court in St. Louis for Lucy Ann Berry's freedom, as a "next friend" to the minor girl.[5] Since her own case had not been settled, Wash was still considered a slave with no legal standing, but under the slave law, she could bring suit on behalf of a minor as "next friend". The law provided a slave with the status of a "poor person", with court-appointed counsel when the court determined the case had grounds. Delaney's memoir suggests that her mother's attorneys suggested her strategy of filing separate suits for her and her daughter, to prevent a jury's worrying about taking too much property from one slaveholder.[6]

The case was prepared primarily by Francis Butter Murdoch, who litigated nearly one third of the freedom suits filed in St. Louis from 1840–1847.[5] Francis B. Murdoch had served as the Alton, Illinois district attorney, and prosecuted the murder of the printer Elijah Lovejoy by anti-abolitionists.[7] Wash also attracted the support of Edward Bates; a prominent Whig politician and judge, he argued Lucy Ann's case in court. Bates later served as the US Attorney General under President Abraham Lincoln.

While waiting for trial, Lucy Ann Berry was remanded to the jail, where she was held for more than 17 months without being hired out. It was customary to lease out slaves to offset expenses and earn money for such slaves' masters. In February 1844 the case went to trial.[5] By then her mother's case had been settled, and Polly Wash was declared free, based on her free birth in Illinois. In addition, Wash had affidavits from people who knew her and her daughter. Judge Robert Wash (Fanny Berry Wash's widower and Polly's previous master) testified that Lucy Ann was definitely Polly Berry Wash's child. The jury believed the case for freedom had been proved, as the girl had been born to a legally free mother. The judge announced Lucy Ann Berry was free.[5] She was approximately 14 years old.[3]

Lucy Ann and Polly Berry lived in St. Louis after gaining her freedom. They had to get certificates as free blacks and deal with other restrictions of the time against free people of color. They worked together as seamstresses.

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1845, Lucy Ann met and married steamboat worker Frederick Turner, with whom she settled in Quincy, Illinois. Her mother lived with them. Turner died soon after in a boiler explosion on the steamboat The Edward Bates. (It was named for the lawyer who had helped secure Lucy Ann's freedom two years before.)[3]

Polly Wash and Lucy Ann returned to St. Louis. In 1849, Lucy Ann met and married Zachariah Delaney. They were married for the rest of their lives, and her mother lived with them. Though the couple had four children, two did not survive infancy. The remaining son and daughter both died in their early twenties.[3]

Later life[edit]

As Delaney recounted in her memoir, she became active in civic and religious associations. Such organizations developed rapidly in both the African-American and white communities nationally in the years following the Civil War. She joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1855, founded in 1816 in Philadelphia as the first independent black denomination in the US. In addition, Delaney was elected president of the Female Union, an organization of African-American women. She also served as president of the Daughters of Zion, as well as a women's group affiliated with the Freemasons, to which her husband belonged.[3] They often supported community education and health projects.

Delaney belonged to the Col. Shaw Woman's Relief Corps, No. 34, a women's auxiliary to the Col. Shaw Post, 343, Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The veterans' group was named after the white commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first of the United States Colored Troops and a unit that achieved renown for courage in the Civil War. Delaney dedicated her memoir to the GAR, which had fought for the freedom of slaves.[3]

In the late nineteenth century, many blacks migrated to St. Louis from the Deep South for its industrial jobs. Delaney met with new arrivals to try to track down her father. Learning that he was living on a plantation 15 miles south of Vicksburg, Mississippi, she wrote and asked him to visit her. Her sister Nancy from Canada joined their reunion in St. Louis. Their father was glad to see them, but, as his wife Polly had died by then, he returned to Mississippi and his friends of 45 years.[3]

Nothing was recorded about the year or circumstances of Lucy Delaney's death.


In 1891, Delaney published her From the Darkness Cometh the Light, or, Struggles for Freedom, the only first-person account of a freedom suit.[5] The text is also classified as a slave narrative, most of which were published prior to the Civil War and Emancipation.[4] Delaney devoted most of her account to her mother Polly Berry's struggles to free her family from slavery. Though the story is Delaney's, she features her mother as the lead protagonist.

The narrative is steeped in spirituality, as was typical of the genre and people's lives. Delaney delebrated what she considered God's benevolent role in her own life, and she attacked the hypocrisy of Christian slave owners. From the Darkness emphasizes the strength of the African Americans who suffered under slavery, rather than recount its abuses. By continuing her memoir after she gained freedom at age 14, Delaney could demonstrate her fortitude as a young widow, and after the deaths of each of her four children. She portrayed her mother Polly Berry as serving as an adviser and role model. By celebrating her political and civic activities, Delaney stated the way African Americans fully participated in US democracy.[citation needed]

Publication history[edit]

From the Darkness was originally published in St. Louis in 1891 by J.T. Smith. After the rise of the mid-20th-century Civil Rights Movement and feminism, and new interest in historic black and women's literature, in 1988 the book was reprinted in the collection Six Women's Slave Narratives by Oxford University Press. It is available in full for free online by Project Gutenberg, as well as by the University of North Carolina in its Documents of the American South website [1].

Literary critic P. Gabrielle Foreman suggested that author Frances Harper based her character of "Lucille Delaney", in the novel Iola Leroy (1892), on Delaney's memoir published the year before.[citation needed]


  • From the Darkness Cometh the Light, or, Struggles for Freedom (1891), reprinted in Six Women's Slave Narratives, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. ISBN 0-19-505262-5.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "History of Freedom Suits in Missouri" Archived December 13, 2018, at the Wayback Machine, St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, September 1, 2004, accessed January 4, 2011.
  2. ^ a b Van Ravenswaay, Charles (1991). St. Louis: An Informal History of the City and Its People, 1764-1865. St. Louis, MO: Missouri History Museum.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Lucy A. Delaney, From the Darkness Cometh the Light: or Struggles for Freedom, Electronic edition, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2001; accessed April 22, 2009.
  4. ^ a b Edlie L. Wong (July 1, 2009). Neither Fugitive nor Free: Atlantic Slavery, Freedom Suits, and the Legal Culture of Travel. New York University Press. pp. 127–. ISBN 978-0-8147-9465-4.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Eric Gardner, " 'You have no business to whip me': the freedom suits of Polly Wash and Lucy Ann Delaney", African American Review, Spring 2007, accessed January 4, 2011.
  6. ^ Wong, p. 135.
  7. ^ Wong, p. 132.

1900 United States Census, Missouri St. Louis ED 396 Precinct 11 St. Louis city Ward 26

Zach Delaney Male 77 Married Black, B. Feb 1823 Ohio, Married 1850, Father born Virginia, Mother born Virginia, Head of Household, Employed as Janitor Lucy A Delaney Female 74 Married Black, B. May 1826 Missouri, Married 1850, Father born Kentucky, Mother born Illinois, Mother of 7 children total

Ancestry City Directories 1822-1995, Zachariah resides in St. Louis occupation as Cook, Porter or Janitor Last entry in St. Louis City Directory was on page 257 for 1904, Zachariah Delaney, Janitor resides at 1317 Washington. Approx death date of 1904-5

Boiler Explosion and Fire of the Edward Bates where Lucy's first husband Frederick Turner perished as a deckhand. Listed among those Mortally wounded, dying of his injuries with one William Robinson, presumed a co worker. *Note a Claudine and Louisa Robinson lived next door to the Delaneys on the 1900 census for St. Louis. Eli Delany, First Cook, listed among dead crewmen

Missouri Republican August 14th, 1848

"...Missing and Dead of the Crew -- JOHN BROWN, colored fireman, Quincy, blown overboard; ANDREW HATFIELD, colored fireman, Ill., do.; ELI DELANY, first cook, St. Louis, do.; GEO. MATSON, fireman, do., do.; JOHN LEMON, deck-hand, do. do., HARRY JOHNSON, do. do.; WM. PARKS, do. do.; C. W. LYONS, do. do.; Quincy, do.; ______ HOLLIDAY, do. do.; WM. AMNET, do., St. Louis, died of wounds; FRED., (Frenchman) cook, do. do.; ISAAC DOZIER, deck-hand, Ala., do. Four missing names not known. Total Killed 28; do. wounded 30..."

Newspaper clipping states 'dead were buried at Hamburg, Illinois"

The wounded were at once placed in the cabin of the boat, and every attention paid to them by the officers of the two boats. Some of the dead were interred at Hamburg, while the boat lay at that place. Others died shortly after the boat landed at our wharf. As soon as it could be done, the Mayor, with praisewothy[sic] alacrity, order the removal of all the wounded, except two or three who went to the Charity Hospital, to the City Hospital. In the afternoon, as we learned from the attending physician, the wounds of those at the City Hospital had all been dressed, and they were in a comfortable condition, with a prospect of their recovery. -- Of the thirteen wounded persons left at Hamburg after the explosion of the above boat, 12 have died. The cause of the explosion has been traced to the negligence of MR. DONAHOE, the engineer. - The Davenport Gazette Iowa 1848-08-24

Steamboat Disasters Part 2, Genealogy Trails,death%20of%20fifty-three%20persons%2C%20and%20wounding%20forty%20others.


A flue of the steamer Edward Bates collapsed on the Mississippi river, near Hamburg, Ill., on the 9th day of August, 1848, causing the death of fifty-three persons, and wounding forty others. The particulars are unknown, as few of those who witnessed the disaster survived to tell the melancholy story. The names of some of the killed and wounded have been preserved, and will be found in the following list: Killed—William Chamberlain, Mr. White, Mr. Rarridon, and Mr. Haines, deck passengers; Mrs. Bowen and nephew; Mrs. John Bowen and child ; Mrs. Susan Bowen and child ; Mr. Eades and two children ; Master Eades, his nephew; John Brown, Andrew Hatfield, and Eli Delmay, deck hands ; Geo. Matson and John Lenan, firemen ; Henry Johnson, Wm. Parks, G. W. Lyons, J. Holliday, Win. Amet, Frederic Smith, colored fireman, and Isaac Dozier. Thirteen dead bodies, exclusive of the above, were afterwards picked up at Hamburg. Wounded—George Blackwell, T. B. Ewing, D. E. Cameron, Samuel Simpson, Preston Leiper, Le Roy Jenkins, E. B. Morrison and wife, (badly,) M. Vansel, James Cook, J. H. Simpson, Master Bowen, Mr. Eades, E. T. Hudson, H. M. Swazy, J. Righter, and friend. Mortally Wounded—George Watt, Samuel Dolsey, Wm. Wells, John Montague, Silas Bowman, Samuel Ferguson, T. M. McDonald, Joseph Morrison, Jacob Andrews, F. Turner, Jno. Swan, and Wm. Robinson.


  • Ann Allen Shockley, Afro-American Women Writers 1746–1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books, 1989. ISBN 0-452-00981-2
  • Jeannine Delombard, Slavery On Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

External links[edit]