The 14-foot bronze Freedom Suits Memorial statue has been placed in downtown St. Louis.
Hundreds of enslaved Black Americans who filed lawsuits seeking freedom in Missouri in the 1850s are being honored with a new monument in St. Louis.
The 14-foot bronze Freedom Suits Memorial statue has been placed in downtown St. Louis in the new Freedom Plaza next to the courthouse, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The effort was more than a decade in the making and spearheaded by Judge David Mason of the 22nd Circuit Court, a descendent of enslaved people, CBS News reports.
“This is an incredible part of St. Louis’s history. You had to be pretty brave and courageous just to file the suit, because if you lost, the consequences could be dire,” Mason said of the memorial installation. “When I’m reading these files and reading the affidavits of the slaves, I mean, I’m hearing them, I’m feeling them, I’m hearing my people. These were some of the strongest people over 500 years that have ever been produced in American society.”
The monument was dedicated on Monday — on the Juneteenth federal holiday — and honors hundreds of enslaved Missourians who took legal action seeking freedom. Missouri law in the 1800s stated that an enslaved person who was taken out of state and established residency as a free man or woman would remain free when he or she returned to Missouri.
The suits were filed during a time when enslaved Black people weren’t allowed to read, write or testify in a court of law. More than 100 of the lawsuits were successful and many plaintiffs won their freedom, but those who did not were often sold to someone who resided in another slave state.
“These plaintiffs had to have all white people supporting them — affidavits and testimony. And yet they persevered,” said attorney Paul Venker, head of the Freedom Suits Memorial Steering Committee that raised about $780,000 for the statue.
“I know plenty of people now are intimidated by coming to the courthouse. Imagine how a slave must have felt, knowing that this would not likely go in their favor,” Venker added.
One famous case is that of Dred Scott, an enslaved man who, along with his wife, Harriet, sued for freedom for themselves and their two daughters. The couple claimed they had lived in a free state and wanted to continue to live free under Missouri law. The Scotts initially won their case but this led to a decade-long battle and their suit was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857.
“This was really based on family preservation,” Scott’s great-great-granddaughter Lynne Jackson told CBS News.
“They were there to save their daughters. They hid them away for possibly up to two years just to keep them from being sold during this process,” Jackson said.
Historian Kenneth Winn said the Scotts’ case was among the 306 freedom suits filed in St. Louis.
“It shows the collective effort of a people trying to be free, who did not rest and just accept their law and slavery, but resisted it,” Winn said. “It really speaks in some ways to people who believed in the integrity of the law.”
The memorial features the names of 330 freedom suit plaintiffs around its base. Here’s more from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
The sculpture shows a woman at a judge’s bench, under a depiction of the rotunda of the Old Courthouse. The back of the sculpture shows a slaveowner’s house and a handler along the riverfront, and one side shows Native Americans canoeing on the river.
The sculpture was created by retired college professor Preston Jackson, who taught at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. The $1 million Freedom Suits Memorial project was made possible by private donations.
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