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Freedom Suits Memorial unveiled in downtown St. Louis with help from Thompson Coburn donation

June 21, 2022

On Monday, June 20, hundreds of people gathered for the Freedom Suits Memorial unveiling ceremony in downtown St. Louis. Thompson Coburn donated $50,000 toward the major public art project that honors the hundreds of slaves who filed lawsuits in Missouri courts to demand their freedom. 

The sculpture is an 8-foot-by-14-foot cast bronze work by nationally recognized sculptor Preston Jackson, a professor emeritus at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Each angle of the work depicts scenes from the six-decade legal effort by slaves and their attorneys to gain freedom. As detailed in Mr. Jackson's designs, outside a courthouse, a white family walks freely along a busy street while a white man and a dog escort a runaway slave. Inside the courthouse, an African American woman testifies for her freedom before a judge and lawyer. The back of the sculpture shows a slave owner's house and a handler along the riverfront, and one side shows Native Americans canoeing on the river. 

The most famous of the approximately 400 plaintiffs who filed Freedom Suits were Dred and Harriet Scott, who were freed by a St. Louis jury only to have the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the verdict in a landmark 1857 decision that denied citizenship to all people of African ancestry, regardless of whether they were enslaved or free. Public outcry over the decision is widely regarded as one of the catalysts for the Civil War.

Lynn Jackson, a descendant of Dred and Harriet Scott, joined Judge David Mason, Mayor Tishaura Jones and prominent local leaders on the newly renamed Freedom Plaza at the Civil Courts Building for the ceremony.

Mayor Jones pointed out that the dedication fell on the newly enacted federal holiday Juneteenth, which marks the date in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

"This is a chapter of American history — and Missouri history — that deeply deserves closer examination and illumination," said Steering Committee Chair Paul Venker. "Our committee thanks Thompson Coburn for the firm's incredibly generous donation and its commitment to a project that connects the courageous acts of these litigants to the continuing struggle of African Americans to overcome barriers to justice." 

"We're proud to be among the very first law firms to support this powerful work of art," said Roman Wuller, Chair of Thompson Coburn. "As a law firm community committed to diversity and inclusion, we believe the Freedom Suits Memorial will help future generations recognize the impact of these legal pioneers and be inspired to call out racial bias and defend the rights and dignity of all underrepresented groups in our country."  

The ceremony was a great ending to the Juneteenth weekend commemorating Black history in St. Louis.