ST. LOUIS – It’s a project that has been years in the making. Today, a groundbreaking took place on the new Freedom Suits Memorial coming to the St. Louis Civil Courts building.
In attendance were St. Louis former mayors Francis Slay and Lyda Krewson, along with current Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, Circuit Judge David C. Mason, President of St. Louis chapter of the NAACP Adolphus Pruitt, and the Freedom Suits Steering Committee.
They dug their shovels in the dirt to turn over some of this city’s and nation’s past with the new Freedom Suits Memorial.
“In the mid-1990s, a circuit clerk discovered hundreds of files lost in a basement,” Mayor Jones said.
“These files were the hidden stories of hundreds of enslaved people who went to our courts to sue for their freedom in the 57 years before the Civil War.”
In the 1800s, Missouri territory courts allowed black people, who were held as slaves, to sue for their freedom. The lawsuits were later termed “freedom suits.”
“This Freedom Suits Memorial will serve as a reminder, and in most cases, as a tribute of a snapshot in St. Louis where fairness, equity, and justice was possible for the enslaved,” Pruitt said.
The most famous case originated in the St. Louis Circuit Court System when Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom.
The Freedom Suits Memorial will recognize and honor the roughly 400 enslaved people who petitioned Missouri courts for their freedom.
“When I took a look at the freedom suits, and what they were about after we discovered them, I realized instantly as a black man and slave descendent, just filing these suits took some serious guts,” Mason said.
“That’s where the phrase being, ‘sold down the river.’ Literally, the slaves were sold down the river to the horrible plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana.”
“And many blacks in St. Louis on the plantations were warned, ‘You file that suit and master is going to sell you down the river if you lose.’ They knew what they were facing.”
Sculptor Preston Jackson was chosen as the artist for the memorial on the eastern plaza of the civil courts building.
The new Freedom Suits Memorial is coming to the eastern plaza of the civil courts building and it will to be completed in the fall.