ST. LOUIS (March 28, 2016) — A steering committee has selected sculptor Preston Jackson’s design for a dynamic visual narrative to memorialize more than 300 courageous slaves and lawyers who went to court in St. Louis to sue for their freedom from 1806 through Emancipation in 1863.
The memorial is planned for the east plaza of the Civil Courts Building downtown. Fundraising from private sources will begin immediately.
Jackson is a professor emeritus at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where he continues to teach foundry techniques. He is owner of a gallery in Peoria, Ill. A specialist in cast bronze, his works include dozens of public sculptures, including a statue of Miles Davis in Alton; “Acts of Intolerance” in Springfield, Ill., celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NAACP; and “From Cottonfield to Battlefield” in Decatur, Ill., memorializing Abraham Lincoln’s decision to permit African American soldiers to fight in the Civil War.
His design for the Freedom Suits Memorial calls for a cast bronze work approximately 5 feet by 3 feet wide and 10 feet tall. Each angle of the sculpture will be a pictorial lesson on the lawsuits and the times. It will incorporate both free-standing and relief sculptures in a construction recalling the dome and cupola of the Old Courthouse.
“This is a very important project, which fits my life’s work, telling the visual history of our country in a compelling and effective manner that is appropriate for all,” Jackson said. “I feel it is imperative that the descendants of slaves see themselves as strong people, as survivors, and this sculpture will certainly send that important message.”
St. Louis Circuit Judge David C. Mason, who first conceived the memorial, said, “The design vividly shows how two centuries ago, St. Louis provided proof for the American ideal that even those with least means can achieve justice through the courts. It is likely this work will become another sculptural icon for St. Louis.”
Paul N. Venker, chairman of the steering committee, said, “This moving memorial compels us to reflect upon how the least powerful among us, exercising what imperfect legal rights they had, initiated what can only be described as nation-altering change. We honor these African Americans who chose the Rule of Law, and the lawyers who embraced the Spirit of Justice to help them.”
The sculpture will be aligned with the Gateway Mall and the Old Courthouse, where most of these suits were tried — including that of Dred Scott and his wife Harriet. The Scotts initially won their freedom in the St. Louis court but lost it on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, a decision that helped propel the nation into the Civil War.
The steering committee for the memorial advertised for proposals beginning in August. It received several responses and chose three finalists. Jackson’s proposal was the clear consensus of the committee.
The steering committee comprises 12 members representing the court, local lawyers, academicians, arts leaders and city officials. Fundraising will be conducted through the St. Louis Bar Foundation.