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Renovated Old Courthouse In St. Louis To Focus On Dred Scott, African American History

Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
A statue of Dred and Harriet Scott stands before the Old Courthouse, where they famously sued for their freedom. Enhanced historical exhibitions will more thoroughly tell their story.

Historical exhibits at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis will be revamped to better reflect the city's African American history. They will also more thoroughly tell the story of Dred and Harriet Scott, who famously sued for their freedom there.

The Gateway Arch Park Foundation and National Park Service announced Wednesday that the courthouse will be renovated to include new and refreshed historical exhibits. Workers also will install an elevator and a new climate control system.

The renovations are part of the $380 million CityArchRiver project, which has included revamped grounds and a new visitor center for the Gateway Arch. The work is due to begin in late 2021 and continue for two years. The building will be closed to the public during that time. It has been closed since March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The new historical exhibits include one called “Pathways to Freedom,” which explores African American history in St. Louis. “Designed for Justice” will highlight architectural features of the building. The existing courthouse space will also be revamped with interactive installations.

The changes will mark the latest evolution in the way the Old Courthouse presents the Scotts’ story — including an emphasis on Harriet Scott, who sued for her freedom separately. Their cases led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 decision that held that Black people cannot be considered U.S. citizens and have no rights under the Constitution. It was overturned 11 years later by adoption of the 14th Amendment, which made all persons born or naturalized in the United States citizens.

lynn jackson.jpg
Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Lynne Jackson, great-great-granddaughter of Dred and Harriet Scott, stands in the space where a new exhibit will detail her ancestors' story. The space is currently dedicated to an exploration of the nation's expansion into the west.

“Right now the building is telling the story of Dred Scott. It’s doing better than it was many years ago when I was younger. But it’s not anywhere near where it’s going to be,” said Lynne Jackson, great-great-granddaughter of the Scotts and founder of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation.

Jackson said future visitors to the Old Courthouse will see the relevance of her ancestors’ story to their own lives.

“I think today people would recognize we’re still fighting some battles that haven’t been won yet,” Jackson said. “And even though Dred Scott did not win his battle in the court, he did win his freedom. And so we have to recognize that we can’t quit. When something is unjust, if something is unrighteous, we have to fight until it is corrected.”

The exhibits dedicated to the Scotts and to African American history will draw connections between the past and present in a new way, said Pam Sanfilippo, chief of museum services and interpretation at Gateway Arch National Park.

“Making that connection with the past through events happening today is really something that we haven’t done as well in the past, and this gives us that opportunity,” Sanfilippo said. “We’re looking at those stories of the experiences of all people of color in St. Louis throughout the history of this city, and telling the story of how the Scotts were not the only ones who sued for their freedom.”

guy in courtroom.jpg
Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Ryan McClure, executive director of the Gateway Arch Park Foundation, details upcoming changes to the building's courthouse space. Additions will include interactive installations.

A statue of the Scotts stands near the building’s east entrance, and an indoor gallery features photos of the pair and facts about their quest for freedom. All of the new exhibitions will be less text-heavy and include more interactive elements, said Ryan McClure, the Gateway Arch Park Foundation’s executive director.

They will follow the model of the historical materials in the new Arch visitor center by reflecting a historical perspective less focused on the experience of white settlers in Missouri, McClure said.

“Before the renovation it was told a lot from the perspective of the settlers that were heading west, and that the West was won. Now if you look in that museum, it’s told from multiple perspectives,” McClure said. “It’s not just ‘the West was won,’ it’s that the West was stolen and stolen from the people who lived there first.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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