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Court commissions sculpture honoring lawyers and slaves who sued for freedom

A rendering of Preston Jackson's winning design for the Freedom Suits Memorial
Preston Jackson | Provided
A rendering of Preston Jackson's winning design for the Freedom Suits Memorial

Updated to reflect the project's funding  plan - The Civil Courts building downtown is getting a new sculpture to honor more than 300 slaves and lawyers who sued for freedom in the early 1800s.

A steering committee of lawyers, artists, court officials, professors and city officials on Monday announced they had chosen sculptor Preston Jackson to create the Freedom Suits Memorial, which will be installed in the east plaza of the Civil Courts building.

Judge David C. Mason conceived the  memorial while researching the Dred Scott case. He called the use of the legal system to challenge slavery a foundational moment in American history.

“Here in the city of St. Louis you had slaves being able to go into court to fight for their civil rights, you had lawyers volunteering to literally be the first civil rights lawyers on their behalf, and winning in front of juries their civil right to freedom,” Mason said.

Scott's case is the most famous of the freedom suits. Though the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned the verdict of a St. Louis jury granting Scott his freedom, Mason said, the statement from those 12 men was a declaration.

“White man, you have lost your power over this slave. He is now a free person to live in this city, own property, and have all the rights granted to other free persons or at least other free slaves,” Mason said.

Jackson, the sculptor  said his winning design highlights the strength needed to challenge slavery, rather than focusing on the horrors of the institution.

“We’re looking at achievements. We’re looking at a group of men and women who tried to remedy this. We’re looking at proud, strong, people,” Jackson said.

The sculptor said his long-standing interest in area history and “people desiring to be free” compelled him to submit a proposal for the statue, and family histories about slavery handed down from generation to generation inform his work. For Jackson, the ideologies that backed the slavery versus emancipation debate are still very relevant to today.

“Ferguson, East St. Louis, the history of St. Louis itself dealing in commerce and slavery, that’s a very interesting area and still connects to things that are happening today. That’s basically my motivation for applying for this,” he said.

Private funds are being sought to support the project. 

Follow Willis on Twitter: @willisrarnold

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