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Memorial sculpture at Civil Courts Building to commemorate legal effort to free slaves

From the time of the Louisiana Purchase until the Emancipation Proclamation 57 years later, approximately 400 slaves filed suits in Missouri courts to demand their freedom, assisted by lawyers working without pay.

Of course, it was a great challenge for a slave to get to court, but once there, they had a legal precedent on their side: “Once free, always free.” Under this theory, the courts had held that a slave who had been moved to a free state or territory for any length of time then returned to a slave state or territory could sue for his or her freedom.

A group of abolitionist lawyers in the St. Louis region believed that, through the courts, they might extend this legal theory and ultimately end the abomination of slavery in the United States without a violent struggle.

They succeeded in freeing many slaves, including Dred and Harriet Scott. Unfortunately for the Scotts, their original owner died while their case was pending. The owner’s widow and her brother appealed the St. Louis verdict, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The resulting decision is generally considered the worst in the history of the Supreme Court. It held that all people of African ancestry — slaves as well as those who were free — could never become citizens of the United States and therefore could not sue in federal court. The court also ruled that the federal government did not have the power to prohibit slavery in its territories.

The decision in 1857 propelled the United States toward the Civil War four years later.

A memorial commemorating these brave St. Louis litigants and their attorneys is planned for the east plaza of the Civil Courts Building downtown. Fundraising from private sources will begin immediately, focusing on members of the legal community.

In August 2015, The Freedom Suits Memorial Steering Committee published a request for proposals from regional artists for a memorial sculpture. In March, the committee selected sculptor Preston Jackson’s design for a dynamic visual narrative to memorialize more than 300 courageous slaves and lawyers who went to court in St. Louis to sue for their freedom from 1806 through emancipation in 1863.

Jackson is a professor emeritus at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where he continues to teach foundry techniques. He is owner of a gallery in Peoria, Illinois. A specialist in cast bronze, his works include dozens of public sculptures, including a statue of Miles Davis in Alton; “Acts of Intolerance” in Springfield, Illinois, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NAACP; and “From Cottonfield to Battlefield” in Decatur, Illinois, memorializing Abraham Lincoln’s decision to permit African-American soldiers to fight in the Civil War.

His design for the Freedom Suits Memorial calls for a cast bronze work approximately 5 feet by 3 feet wide and 10 feet tall. Each angle of the sculpture will be a pictorial lesson on the lawsuits and the times. It will incorporate both free-standing and relief sculptures in a construction recalling the dome and cupola of the Old Courthouse.

“This is a very important project, which fits my life’s work, telling the visual history of our country in a compelling and effective manner that is appropriate for all,” Jackson said. “I feel it is imperative that the descendants of slaves see themselves as strong people, as survivors, and this sculpture will certainly send that important message.”

St. Louis Circuit Judge David C. Mason, who first conceived the memorial, said, “The design vividly shows how two centuries ago, St. Louis provided proof for the American ideal that even those with least means can achieve justice through the courts. It is likely this work will become another sculptural icon for St. Louis.”

Paul N. Venker, chairman of the steering committee, said, “This moving memorial compels us to reflect upon how the least powerful among us, exercising what imperfect legal rights they had, initiated what can only be described as nation-altering change. We honor these African-Americans who chose the Rule of Law, and the lawyers who embraced the Spirit of Justice to help them.”

The sculpture will be aligned with the Gateway Mall and the Old Courthouse, where most of these suits were tried — including that of Dred and Harriet Scott.

The steering committee comprises 12 members representing the court, local lawyers and academicians, arts leaders and others. Fundraising will be conducted through the St. Louis Bar Foundation.

Information about the memorial sculpture project is available from Thom Gross, public information officer for the 22nd Judicial Circuit of Missouri, 314-622-5685, or thomgross@courts.mo.gov.

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