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It Took Courage

It Took Courage

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Eliza Winston's Quest For Freedom

Author Christopher P. Lehman

Minnesota Historical Society Press (April 16, 2024)

In 1860, Eliza Winston escaped enslavement while traveling in Minnesota, where she secured her freedom through legal appeal. Her story adds powerful testimony to African American experiences and perseverance in antebellum America.


On August 22, 1860, an enslaved woman from Mississippi named Eliza Winston petitioned for her freedom before a judge in Minnesota—and she won. After she left the state for Canada, the abolitionists who had helped her told and retold the story, emphasizing their own actions; their detractors claimed they had used Winston as a pawn. For more than 150 years, historians' accounts have emphasized the mobs who battled in the streets after the ruling, focusing on the implications of the events for Minnesota politics rather than Winston's own story. With It Took Courage, Christopher P. Lehman helps set the record straight.

Lehman uncovers the story of Winston's first forty-two years and her long struggle to obtain her freedom. She was sold away from her birth family; her husband, a free man, died before he could purchase her freedom. She labored in Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Minnesota. For thirty-one years she was enslaved by the family of President Andrew Jackson, who bought her for his great-niece and paid a cousin of James K. Polk to hold her in trust. Winston's victory produced a compelling irony: a woman Jackson himself had enslaved defeated a part of his legacy in Minnesota.

The survival of the remarkable story of Eliza Winston's battle for individual freedom is an important contribution to the larger understanding of what slavery meant on this continent and how it affected individual lives—in both North and South. Winston's experience demonstrates the lengths to which a person would go to escape slavery, attempting to work both outside and inside the flawed and inequitable laws of the time, until finally receiving justice. If the traditional accounts relied on stereotypical depictions of Winston as "simple-minded," in Lehman's skillful description, Winston appears as a capable, mature woman who understood her life and her values. Eliza Winston herself made the bold decision to leave behind everything she had known for an uncertain but free future.

Author information

Christopher P. Lehman is a professor of ethnic studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He researches, writes, and teaches about the struggle for African American equality, using the tools of genealogy to trace the lives of people who have left very few traces. He has written six other books, including Slavery's Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State, which won the Minnesota Book Award for Minnesota Nonfiction in 2020.

  • Paperback
  • 272 pages
  • 9 in H | 6 in W
  • ISBN: 9781681342825

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