Freedom Suits Memorial unveiled in downtown St. Louis
As Hon. David C. Mason looked out over the crowd Monday evening, he fought back tears. Mason, circuit judge with the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court, hoped to one day display a monument honoring the brave Black plaintiffs who fought for their freedom in the 1800s with the help of dedicated judges, lawyers, and jurors. His dream came true, and the Freedom Suits Monument was unveiled in conjunction with Juneteenth.
Several hundred judges, lawyers, politicians, and Missouri residents gathered on the east plaza of the Civil Courts Building in downtown St. Louis June 20 for the unveiling of the new Freedom Suits Memorial. The 14-foot bronze statue honors the more than 300 Black Missourians who, over nearly six decades, fought for their freedom in St. Louis circuit court with the assistance of lawyers, judges, and jurors. Created by sculptor Preston Jackson, the statue sits on an 8,000-pound black granite base, engraved with the names of the enslaved plaintiffs in what’s believed to be the largest known single collection of their identities, according to a press release by the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court.
“Just as the Gateway Arch is a symbol of the gateway to the West, this stunning monument stands as a testament to fairness and how our courts served as a gateway to freedom for slaves,” St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said.
The freedom suits were legal challenges that centered around the “once free, always free” theory. Under this Missouri judicial standard, if enslaved people were taken to free states, they were then freed – even if they later returned to Missouri, a slave state. Hundreds of enslaved individuals used this precedent to sue for their freedom in St. Louis.
“I thought about the all-white male jurors who more than 100 times said to the slave owner, ‘Sorry, this slave is free. The evidence – the truth – says it,’” Mason said, receiving a roaring standing ovation.
Sen. Steven Roberts, of Missouri’s 5th district, credited the freedom suits for “igniting a spark.”
“I am a Black lawyer, and today, standing in the very spot of those who paved the way for me, they were giants,” he said.
While many enslaved people – such as the famous Dred and Harriet Scott – won their freedom using the “once free, always free” precedent, the Freedom Suits Monument also reminds residents of a darker time in Missouri’s history, several speakers said. The Supreme Court of Missouri overturned the “once free, always free” precedent in 1852 when it denied the Scotts’ freedom on appeal. Dred Scott v. Sandford worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it ruled that everyone of African ancestry – enslaved individuals as well as those who were free – could not become citizens in the United States and therefore couldn’t sue in federal court. It also ruled that the federal government couldn’t prohibit slavery in its territories. The Scott ruling was a driving factor that propelled the nation into the Civil War in 1861.
The Freedom Suits Memorial reminds everyone that “we have to do better every day,” Mason said. He adds residents need to “make freedom ring for all of those who find it denied,” and they can do this by serving as impartial jurors, recognizing bias, reviewing how minorities are portrayed in the media, and reanalyzing how institutions have potentially harmful policies that negatively impact Black residents.
Keynote speaker Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré echoed Mason, adding that while the nation has come a long way, there is still work to be done.
“Freedom and justice is an incomplete sentence unless you add equal rights, equity, and inclusion,” he said as audience members clapped in approval.
Honoré emphasized that Missourians need to show courage and a willingness to sacrifice, like the 300 Black plaintiffs did when they filed their freedom suits. He also noted judges, lawyers, and jurors must continue striving to ensure freedom and justice for all.
“If our courts fail, our democracy fails. If we lose our democracy, we will not get it back,” Honoré said, receiving a standing ovation.
Also in attendance at Monday’s unveiling were Lynne Jackson, descendant of Dred and Harriet Scott; lawyer Paul Venker, chairman of the Freedom Suits Memorial Steering Committee; and Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, among others.
Click here to learn more about the Freedom Suits Memorial.