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A downtown memorial will honor enslaved people who sued for freedom

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Freedom Suits Memorial Steering Committee
Preston Jackson shows off his sculpture in progress, which will anchor the Freedom Suits Memorial Plaza in downtown St. Louis.

Before emancipation, and before the Civil War resolved slavery’s questions with bloody finality, enslaved men and women turned to the courts. It wasn’t just Dred Scott. The courthouse in St. Louis saw an estimated 400 “freedom suits” in the half-century between the Louisiana Purchase and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Two decades ago, handwritten records of that litigation were stumbled upon almost by accident, said St. Louis Circuit Judge David Mason. For Mason, who is himself the descendant of enslaved people, that discovery set off a quest for knowledge — and action.

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St. Louis Circuit Court Judge David Mason, left, and Paul Venker discussed the new memorial on "St. Louis on the Air."

“That really took my interest,” he explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, and led him to a realization: “We have to memorialize this. We have to pay attention to this.”

Now, thanks to Mason, those lawsuits are being commemorated with a memorial at St. Louis Circuit Court. In the past two years, a committee of lawyers has been raising funds through the St. Louis Bar Foundation. It's commissioned a new work by Preston Jackson, a sculptor based in Peoria, Illinois. His memorial is expected to debut this June, part of a $1 million project just east of the Civil Courts Building at Market and 11th streets in downtown St. Louis.

Paul Venker, senior counsel with Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice, is chairman of the Freedom Suits Memorial Steering Committee. He said the committee has raised approximately $620,000 in the past two years and hopes for another $200,000 by the sculpture’s unveiling.

He said he is looking forward to people seeing Jackson’s work, which depicts an enslaved woman approaching the courts.

“His sculpture is just terrific in so many ways — has so many facets to it,” he said. “And so much symbolism! I think you can have an art class and a history class right there walking around it.”

Listen to Judge David Mason and attorney Paul Venker on St. Louis on the Air

The memorial will include the names of the enslaved people who filed suits. Sometimes, Mason notes, it's only a first name — because that’s all they had. Even so, Mason said the suits make clear these men and women were not just “passive lambs led to slaughter.”

“These were people who really understood the essence of humanity, which is the drive to be free,” he said, “and were willing to take on the risk of the dire consequences — not only what their owner might do to them on the plantation here in town, but being sold down the river to the more horrible conditions in Louisiana and Mississippi. That takes a lot of guts.”

Reflecting on that courage, Mason said, “That's when I decided I was always going to call myself a proud slave descendant.”

Both Mason and Venker said they hope lawyers also can take inspiration from the attorneys, almost always working pro bono, who fought on behalf of enslaved people.

“Lawyers, I hope and pray, as they walk by that memorial on their way to and from court, they get a sense of the fact that in order for our democracy to be truly protected, those big courthouse doors must always be open to the most disenfranchised people that can possibly come to those doors,” Mason said. “That's how we protect everything we've worked for in this country. Lawyers are at the forefront.”

For more on the freedom suits, Venker recommended “Before Dred Scott: Slavery and Legal Culture in the American Confluence, 1787-1857.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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