By Kenya Vaughn
Etta Daniels stood out among the hundreds who braved the heat and humidity and gathered downtown in front of the Civil Courts Building early Monday evening. The courts were closed to commemorate the Juneteenth federal holiday.
They came on a day set aside to honor the emancipation of Blacks in America to unveil, dedicate and bless the Freedom Suits Memorial Monument created by Preston Jackson. He entitled the 14-foot bronze statue “Freedom’s Home.”
“It’s important as we celebrate that this unveiling coincides with Juneteenth, because this date has always been a symbol of Freedom deferred,” said U.S. Congresswoman Cori Bush. “We know that dream is yet to be realized because the vestiges of slavery continue to deny us reparations, liberation and freedom.”
As Bush was speaking, Daniels was holding up a small sign in tribute to one of the more than 300 cases where Black people used the court system as ammunition in their fight for freedom, known collectively as The Freedom Suits. The most famous of them was the Dred Scott case, which was unsuccessfully argued in the U.S. Supreme court – and said by many to be one of the inciting incidents for the Civil War.
“Lucy Ann Britton v. David D. Mitchell, Freedom Suit won 1844,” Daniels’ poster read. She held that sign up for the entire outdoor program, which neared two hours in length.
Britton, who later married to become Lucy Delaney, won her case more than a decade before the Dred Scott case – which originated in St. Louis courts in 1846 – had reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Freedom Suits Memorial monument ensures that the others, like Delaney are also credited.
“This woman didn’t even know what she was leaving to the world,” said Daniels, who is a volunteer historian for Greenwood Cemetery, a local historically Black burial site. “It is just amazing when you think about it.”
Monday was a day nearly a decade in the making, according to Freedom Suits Memorial Steering Committee Chair Paul Venker. The initiative was spearheaded by 22nd Circuit Court Judge David Mason. “You’re not supposed to make a judge cry,” Mason said, offering a bit of comic relief. He fought back tears during his remarks after being praised by all of the speakers for his tireless work towards making the monument a reality.
Emotions ran high as dignitaries and political leaders shared their personal histories and made admissions that the nation is still far from fully honoring its promise of “liberty and justice for all” and its declaration that all men are created equal. Remarks included both history lessons and personal narratives.
State Senator Steve Roberts said that through the Freedom Suits in St. Louis, the “great American experiment” was confronted with its toughest challenge.
“The hundreds of enslaved people and lawyers memorialized here at this spot did so much more than file lawsuits for their freedom,” Roberts said. “ These men and women became part of the most pivotal test in our nation’s history – a test that sought to answer the question that had been asked and debated since our founding. And that is, ‘what kind of country do we want to be?’”
The efforts of the Freedom Suits Memorial Foundation compelled St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones to further reflect on the life of her great-great grandfather, an enslaved man named Spencer Nash.
“I often wonder if he thought about suing for his own freedom, or knew an acquaintance who sued for their freedom,” Jones said. “The burden of proof was on the plaintiff, because black people in this country have always been forced to prove our humanity.”
Freedom for the generations to come
According to Jones, St. Louis’ history of allowing enslaved people to sue for their freedom is a unique distinction for our city.
“Just as the Gateway Arch is the symbol of the gateway to the west, this monument stands as a testament to fairness – and how our courts served as a gateway to freedom for the enslaved,” Jones said. “In the Freedom Suits lies a duality – the promise of justice tempered by the fragility of progress. In the end, it was justice that prevailed, even if many plaintiffs did not see it in their lifetimes.”
Jones proclaimed herself – and this present generation – to be a dream realized.
“It is not lost on me, both the great-great granddaughter of a slave and the first Black woman mayor of St. Louis, that I am living a life that neither my ancestors, nor their oppressors, ever imagined,” Jones said. “There is a new vibrancy of Black culture – our resilience and our resistance – as we commemorate Juneteenth weekend. And it is a testament to how the Freedom Suits reverberate across history.”
The common theme among the remarks was that despite being constantly betrayed by the nation, Black people were committed to making freedom and equity a reality and encouraging America to live up to its ideals.
“If you study history, any place in the world where freedom has been denied, you find that there are those who are fighting to get it. This is no less true than for the American slave,” Mason said. “They would run. They would rebel. They would sing. They filed these lawsuits when they heard that the law would allow it. Every open door, every parted bush, every treaded blade of grass that could lead to freedom, the slaves and my ancestors trod.”
Keynote speaker, retired Lt. General Russel L. Honoré, relied on his extensive knowledge of military history – and his 37 years, three months and three days of service – to drive home his point of the courage and sacrifice of the memorialized Freedom Suits plaintiffs he simply referred to as “the 300.”
“Most of what I tell you will not be taught as of this year in Florida and Texas – and that’s a damn shame,” Honoré said. “I was a grown man in the army before I learned that 20 percent of General Washington’s army was African American. They were promised this concept of freedom, because the Declaration of Independence had been read to them. But the people who wrote that did not have the African American in mind when they wrote it.”
As Honoré continued with his speech that highlighted the betrayals of the Black men who served their country, Daniels stood at attention with her sign. She engaged with those who had questions about Lucy Delaney and her Freedom Suit poster.
She walked closer towards the statue as Pastor Anthony L. Riley laid hands on the statue for the culmination of the ceremony. “As we bless this monument, we confess the sin of our state Missouri, who compromised the integrity of God’s creation,” he said. “God created us in his image and in God’s image there is neither slave nor free. We remember the hundreds of enslaved persons whose names we know – and the scores of names we do not know – who sued for their freedom. Challenge us, Lord, to resolve not only to assert personal freedom, but also seek to protect those who are too vulnerable to protect their own freedoms.”
Several dispersed when the prayer concluded, but not many stayed – including Daniels – to get a closer look at the statue.
“I am just waiting so I can go up there and touch her name,” said Daniels, pointing to the artist’s rendering of Dulaney on the poster. “We have so many people who have given us so much. They are not famous people. These are everyday people that did such extraordinary things. They are the reason we are standing here.”