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St. Louis memorial to honor enslaved Missourians who sought freedom through lawsuits

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Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Workers place the Freedom Suits Memorial Sculpture on its pedestal Wednesday outside the Civil Courts Building in downtown St. Louis.

Hundreds of enslaved Black people who fought for their freedom in St. Louis courts will be honored with a memorial on Monday to commemorate their pursuit for equality and justice for African American slaves.

St. Louis Circuit Court officials will unveil “Freedom’s Home,” a 14-foot, bronze statue standing on black granite with the names of 330 Missourian slaves who filed lawsuits against slaveholders during the early to mid-1800s.

Enslaved Black people courageously filed lawsuits against slaveholders, and white lawyers, jurors and judges in St. Louis took on cases that could potentially grant a Black person freedom during slavery, Circuit Judge David Mason said.

“You can imagine the dire consequences of losing, including being sold down the river to harsh plantations in Louisiana or Mississippi,” Mason said. “This was different. You don’t go around suing the white man in most of the South, in fact, even in portions of the North. That's just not something that happened.”

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Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
A detail of the Freedom Suits Memorial Sculpture outside of the Civil Courts Building in downtown St. Louis.

In 2006, court workers discovered the freedom lawsuits in a storage room while cleaning up. Two years later, Mason formed a committee to memorialize the legacy of the “freedom suits.” That led to planning of a sculpture and memorial plaza to honor those who fought for their freedom.

The $1 million project will include the statue by Preston Jackson, a retired professor at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, a bronze plate in the plaza and a virtual learning platform with more history about the lawsuits.

Attorney Paul Venker, chair of the Freedom Memorial Steering Committee, said he did not know anything about Black Missourians who fought for their freedom through the St. Louis court system.

He wants more people to visit the memorial to understand the history of the lawsuits.

“I'm hoping that we open hearts on this and hopefully minds who want to learn more,” Venker said. “I think if people learn more about this, I think there's much more likelihood there, we'll see less arrogance and dismissiveness about what Black Americans have had to suffer through.”

Mason said the 8,000-pound statue and the history it commemorates symbolize the importance of the court system.

“We must maintain and protect our courts, and keep those doors open to every part of society, because our courts are where we go to seek freedom if anything undermines our freedom,” Mason said.

The 5 p.m. ceremony will be held east of the Civil Courts Building at Market and 11th streets in downtown St. Louis and also will commemorate Juneteenth.

Last year, President Joe Biden signed a law making June 19 a national holiday. St. Louis, St. Louis County and the State of Illinois designated Juneteenth as an official holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

On June 19, 1865, Union Army soldiers traveled to Galveston, Texas, to announce that enslaved Black people were free. Two years prior, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Black St. Louisans will celebrate Juneteenth this weekend with parades, walk-a-thons, musical performances and art exhibits. Local activists want people to use the holiday to give back to Black communities and use the legacy of Juneteenth to continue to push for racial equality.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Juneteenth celebrations

Saturday

Juneteenth Caribbean Heritage Walk-a-thon – 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Forest Park – Cricket Field, St. Louis

IL-MO Juneteenth Solidarity Walk – 8:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m., City of East St. Louis Council, East St. Louis, Illinois

Forward Together in Belleville - Juneteenth Celebration – 10 a.m.-5 p.m, Love Church, Belleville, Illinois

Juneteenth Community Ride – 9 a.m., Tandy Community Center, St. Louis

Delmar Main Street Juneteenth Festival – 9 a.m.-8 p.m., Delmar Main Street, St. Louis

16th Annual Juneteenth Celebration: “Anu” Black World – 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 4000 Maffitt Ave., St. Louis

St. Louis Black Chief Officers Committee Juneteenth Freedom Luncheon – 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., Marriott St. Louis Grand Hotel, St. Louis

Juneteenth Celebration and Resource Fair – noon-6:30 p.m., Old North St. Louis

Groove in the Grove – 1 p.m.-4 p.m., Open Concepts, St. Louis

Juneteenth Community Festival – 1 p.m.-4 p.m., Yale Green Space, Maplewood

Blues on the Block – 5 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Washington Avenue and North 6th Street, St. Louis

Juneteenth Celebration with St. Louis Story Stichers – 12:30 and 2:30 p.m., Old North St. Louis

Sunday

Juneteenth Annual Fitness Celebration – 8 a.m.-12 p.m., 4220 Duncan Ave., St. Louis

Juneteenth Celebration – 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis

Juneteenth Kickball Tournament – 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Marquette Park, St. Louis

Juneteenth in Grand Center – 12 p.m.-3 p.m., Grand Center Arts District, St. Louis

Juneteenth “FREE DOME” Celebration – 1 p.m.-7 p.m., Fairground Park, St. Louis

Dellwood Juneteenth Parade and Celebration – 1 p.m.-7 p.m., 10266 W. Florissant Ave., St. Louis

Wellston Loop Juneteenth Concert Series – 2 p.m.-6 p.m., Wellston Loop, St. Louis

Celebrating Juneteenth with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra – 2 p.m., Greater Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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