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Wednesday, July 6, 2022

This new memorial is dedicated to the hundreds of enslaved Missourians who demanded freedom.

ST. LOUIS. The stories of more than 300 enslaved men and women in Missouri who risked their lives to sue their owners for their freedom have been kept in boxes for over a century.

Now, these civil rights cases, which some debated in the old courthouse still standing in St. Louis, have been commemorated with a new bronze sculpture known as the Liberty Suits Memorial. The base of the 14-foot memorial contains the names of enslaved people, as well as images of court scenes in which they litigate for their freedom.

“I felt that they were all my direct ancestors, and that it was my personal responsibility to make these voices sound, so that everyone knew that the slave was not a passive, frightened, cowering victim, but that we had been fighters for freedom. said St. Louis District Judge David Mason, who has been at the forefront of raising public awareness of Missouri’s “freedom lawsuits.”

Mason said that it wasn’t until the 1990s, after cleaning up the old building, that the city discovered old lawsuits, “folded in half and then in thirds,” stacked in boxes in a “dangerous” state, detailing how those hundreds of people had struggled. for your rights. freedom.

Between 1814 and 1860, before the outbreak of the Civil War, and in some cases before the Dred Scott case, a large number of cases were discussed. Mason said that the theory behind the liberty claims was that under Missouri law, enslaved people had achieved free status but were still in a state of slavery.

Many liberty lawsuits identify plaintiffs by name only. This lawsuit, filed by a man referred to as “Charles the Colored Man”, was filed in 1841. According to the National Park Service’s list of lawsuits and their results, Charles did not win his freedom in the end. Photo: University of Washington Libraries

But this was Missouri, a slave state that officially joined the union in 1821, and the enslaved people who pursued these legal challenges faced a white judge, a jury of white property owners, and faced a deep fear of deadly retribution. However, Missouri’s longstanding court standard – “when free, always free” – was key to understanding why so many of these lawsuits were filed and why, according to Mason, nearly a third of those who sued won.

READ MORE: At least 70 people were enslaved by the Jesuits in St. Louis. Descendants now tell their stories

This meant that if you were enslaved and stayed in a free state long enough to meet the general standards of living in that state, then you became free, he explained. And if the enslavers forcibly took them back to Missouri, the enslaved people had the right to demand their freedom.

“Once Free, Always Free” established the civil right to freedom,” he added.

Out of the box, into the light

After the handwritten documents were discovered, the freedom suits were eventually sent to Washington University in St. Louis, where they ended up with David Konig, emeritus professor of history and law professor.

He worked with undergraduate students who carefully unwrapped and deacidified two-century-old notes one after the other. “Because of the ‘horrible condition’ of the documents, ‘it wasn’t until a few years after they were discovered that they became usable,’ Konig said. These archives were then transcribed and digitized for viewing on the Internet. However, several groups have worked to bring the liberty suits to life, including the State Archives of Missouri, the University of Washington Libraries, the Missouri History Museum, and others.

Documents detailing the freedom suits provided a glimpse into the lives of the people who sued, their stories, their struggles, and how the system built against them worked to oppress them.

There are stories such as that of Lucy Delaney, the daughter of an enslaved woman named Polly Wash, who used the underground railroad to escape slavery in St. Louis but was later caught and returned. In 1839, Wash fought back again, sued for her freedom, and was ultimately victorious. She later helped her eldest daughter Nancy file a lawsuit and eventually Lucy, who is listed in her lawsuit as Lucy Ann Britton. She claimed that her owners David D. Mitchell and his wife falsely imprisoned her.

In her autobiography, Delaney revealed that her enslaver kept her “shut out of sunlight for seventeen long, bleak months” while her case dragged on until she finally gained her freedom,” Konig wrote in a summary of freedom. in Saint Louis. suits.

In the end, according to documents held by the University of Washington and the National Park Service, Delaney won, now she was free.

“One of the worst decisions in court history”

Perhaps the most famous of the freedom suits is the Dred Scott case. Scott’s quest for freedom began in 1846 and lasted approximately 11 years. Scott and his wife argued in court that because they spent time in Illinois and Wisconsin, where slavery was illegal, they had a legal right to sue for their freedom, a position that had been discussed and defended several times before.

The couple first lost on technical grounds and then went to the local and state courts again and again before going to the Supreme Court, where their path to freedom through the judicial system came to an end.

The court ruled on March 6, 1857; neither Scott nor his wife will be freed from the trials until the end. Although eight of the nine justices wrote opinions, the opinion of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney is often considered by the majority. In the decision, he wrote that enslaved people could not be American citizens and were therefore not entitled to sue for their freedom, reversing decades of precedent. He also found the Missouri Compromise of 1821 unconstitutional, stating that Congress could not outlaw slavery in federal territories.

The decision “basically twisted history in a shocking way,” Konig said.

READ MORE: Decades after a Missouri city took over a black doctor’s home, his relatives tried to reclaim his land — and his history

Taney, a devoted proponent of slavery, wrote in his racist opinion that African Americans were “beings of a lower order … so inferior that they had no rights that the white man is bound to respect.”

For Koenig, who has dedicated his life to teaching history and law, the 1857 decision is “one of the worst Supreme Court decisions ever.”

Mason said it was for this reason that we can’t forget Dred Scott and all those who were brave enough to challenge a system designed to never bring them to justice.

“As a nation, we have to deal with Dred Scott’s decision,” he said.

In 2007, the University of Washington hosted a symposium commemorating the 150th anniversary of Dred Scott’s decision. Konig helped organize it by inviting the then Missouri Supreme Court to attend.

“While the bloody civil war resulted in three constitutional amendments overturning this decision, achieving full racial, religious and ethnic equality in this country remains an unfinished project,” Konig said in his speech at the event.

Last year, the Missouri House of Representatives voted 152 to 0 to condemn the Missouri Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case in a resolution led by Missouri Representative Rachel Proudie.

History recovery

Preston Jackson is the artist behind the silicon bronze sculpture unveiled in downtown St. Louis on June 10. He was brought to the project about seven years ago.

“I was and still am excited about what this means for my people and my country, and I really designed this one not to be missed thing,” he said.

Image From Ios (8)

The images featured on the memorial show courtroom scenes of the plaintiffs and their lawyers presenting their cases. Photo: Gabriel Hayes

Jackson, who grew up in Decatur, Illinois, remembers visiting family in St. Louis many times as a child. He recalls that during these visits, there was not enough space in the city for representatives of black artists. It was these moments, according to him, that gave him the opportunity to dream.

“I imagined it and pretended that one of my works was standing in the center of the city and a visualization of what I had to say and offer,” he said.

The memorial, a visualization he dreamed about as a child, is about 14 feet tall. It depicts various scenes showing how the enslaved sit in the courtrooms, and their lawyers boldly defend their right to freedom. The names of the creators of the costumes are inscribed at the base of the bronze sculpture. In the corner is Jackson’s name followed by the year 2021.

“I want people of all classes, all races, all genders to stand there and say that life is worth living, life is worth fighting for, because this is a battle and we are definitely on the right side of history,” he said. . “It makes the observer open their eyes and see that this is something we need to overcome, the battle is still going on.”

Preston also said there was more to tell.

“We are here,” he said. “We’re not going to back down and we’re not going to let that happen.”

World Nation News Desk
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