ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Officials broke ground in downtown St. Louis Wednesday on a statue commemorating slaves who sued for their freedom.

The statue will be placed near the steps of the Civil Courts building. It honors the hundreds of slaves who tried to earn their freedom in the St. Louis courts in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Those gathered for the groundbreaking said it's high time the efforts of those slaves, their attorneys and the courts were honored for their part in history.

But wondering why you haven't heard more about this in history class? Experts say there's a reason. You probably have heard the name Dred Scott though.

“If you ever read the Dred Scott opinion from the first word to the last, you will get angry,” said Judge David C. Mason.

The Dred Scott case was a devastating edict of the US Supreme Court that Judge Mason says helped turned the tide toward civil war. “It gave the Supreme Court's seal of approval to every racist thought you could imagine. That was never undone,” Mason said.

But the Scotts were far from alone. “We were sort of an epicenter of slaves suing for their freedom,” Mason said. In the mid-1800s slavery was legal in Missouri but many freed slaves worked here.

“Essentially if a slave owner took their slave into a free state long enough to establish residency, at that moment, the slave became free and under Missouri's 'once free, always free' rule. You bring them back as a slave, you are violating their rights. And that's what they went to court on,” Mason said.

Over the course of decades leading up to the Civil War, nearly 320 slaves sued to prove their freedom in St. Louis' courts, often at great risk.

“They’re beat. They are given horrible work, denied food, perhaps even killed off. The word was, if you lose, master is going to sell you down the river to the plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi, that's where the phrase, 'sold down the river comes from,'" Mason said.

But in front of all-white, male juries, often with judges protecting them, many of the slaves actually won. “You’ve got to respect that. You've got to honor that because no one was doing that to the degree we were doing it here in our courts. Not even close,” Mason said.

The stories of the Freedom Suits had largely been untold until the documents in St. Louis were discovered in recent years. “Literally cleaning out old files in the basement of the Globe Democrat building,” Mason said. And nearly ever since, there’s been a collaboration to commemorate their stories.

Mason has been joining with many others to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a statute at the steps of the civil courts building. It will tell the story of enslaved people working just outside the courthouse, while inside, justice was at work. There’s a depiction of a female slave on the stand, testifying for her freedom.

“It showed a very intense commitment to the rule of law," Mason said, adding the statue honors the past and will serve as a reminder for the future that justice and equality is for all. "I think it’s something St. Louis citizens will be proud of."

The names of the more than 300 slaves who sued for their freedom in St. Louis will be on that statue. The majority of whom were women, who were fighting for their children to also be free.

Organizers are hoping to find some of descendants of the freed and enslaves people involved in these suits.

You can find more information about the Freedom Suits Memorial here and more from the Centene Charitable Foundation

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