Hundreds of African Americans who fought for their freedom in St. Louis courts will soon be commemorated in front of one of the city's oldest legal institutions.
The Freedom Suits Memorial sculpture will be installed on the grassy plaza east of the Civil Courts Building downtown. The art piece, to be sculpted by Preston Jackson, will honor the more than 300 lawsuits filed by slaves and the lawyers who represented them in St. Louis Circuit Court. City political leaders, judicial officials and civil rights proponents gathered Friday to dedicate the site.
“St. Louis has not always been on the right side of history,” said Mayor Lyda Krewson. “Hopefully this statue and some of our actions today will bring about this dedication that will live on forever and help to move us to the right side of history by honoring the freedom suits.”
A cast bronze piece will illustrate the journey of the slaves who went through the legal system to fight for freedom. The artist, Jackson, is known for his bronze and steel sculptures located in cities including Peoria and Chicago.
“It took maybe a month just to do the sketches and the ideas,” Jackson said.
Jackson said he began sketching the project three years ago. He was selected to complete the work by a committee of local attorneys and judicial officials. The St. Louis Bar Foundation is funding the creation of the monument.
Friday’s dedication comes as groups around the country commemorate 400 years since the first African slaves were brought to North America. Judge David C. Mason, chair of the Freedom Suits Memorial Committee, said the dedication of this memorial is timely.
“We have a long way to go, but that 400 years, step by step, is marked by slaves and their descendants building this country right alongside the descendants of every immigrant who ever hit this land,” Mason said.
About a third of the slaves who sought their freedom in St. Louis courts won their cases, including, famously, Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet Robinson Scott. That decision was later appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Dred Scott v. Sandford, which ruled African Americans could not claim U.S. citizenship.
The controversial Supreme Court ruling became a catalyst for the American Civil War. Jackson said that while the Dred Scott decision, made more than 150 years ago, is an influence of his art, he wants this piece to resonate with people today.
“Now is the time to speak out, because there’s been a big step backwards,” Jackson said. “Now is the time to say, ‘Don’t you have any idea about what we contributed?’”
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