The unveiling of the Freedom Suits Memorial on Monday, June 20 has been more than a decade in the making.
In 2008, Judge David Mason began researching case history of enslaved people who sued for their freedom in Missouri, particularly in St. Louis, who put themselves at risk of being beaten, resold to plantations with worse conditions or even killed. Mason said that many plaintiffs were women hoping to gain freedom for their children as well.
“So they took it on the chin for 57 years in our courts,” Mason said.
Missouri operated under a “once free, always free” law derived from the Missouri compromise. If a Southern slave owner brought an enslaved person into a free state like Illinois and stayed long enough to become a resident, that person could sue for their freedom if they entered Missouri.
“That’s what impressed me,” Mason said. “So many judges respected the law. They would, in many cases, issue orders of protection to make sure the slave was protected from any action until the litigation was completed.”
Mason said he was blown away by the legal system in St. Louis hearing these cases for more than half a century before the Dred Scott case made it to the Missouri Supreme Court and erased that case precedent, which was subsequently affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We have to honor this history, this means something,” Mason said.
It was easy to get the St. Louis City Mayor’s Office on board, as well as a unanimous vote from the court en banc. Mason said the most difficult part was ensuring that he was following the ethical code of conduct, since it would have been unethical to use public funds or for him as a judge to approach lawyers in his circuit to donate to the cause. A 12-person steering committee chaired by attorney Paul Venker completed outreach, education and fundraising efforts.
“This is a gift from the legal community,” Mason said.
The steering committee selected sculpturist Preston Jackson from a pool of applicants, who came to the committee with his own research.
“His sketches for us was a breakthrough,” Venker said. “The judge’s mission was clear from the beginning to honor these plaintiffs, so that part was easy. In terms of conveying the story, that was a challenge.”
According to a statement from St. Louis City Circuit Court Communications Director Jacob Long, “The 14 ft. bronze statue will sit atop an 8,000 lb. black granite base etched with the names of these enslaved plaintiffs in what’s believed to be the largest known single collection of their identities.”
The memorial will be revealed to the public at 5 p.m. on the east side of the Civil Courts Building in St. Louis. Lynne Jackson, the great-great granddaughter of the Scott family plaintiffs, will be speaking alongside keynote speaker Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, St. Louis City Mayor Tishaura Jones, Mason and Venker.
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