Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bumping into History at the Old Courthouse


History teaches us so much about who we are now and how we got here, for it probes our thoughts and opens our eyes, unplugs our ears. This is our world. How did it, and we, get this way? Why do we do the things we do, have the attitudes we have, be as complex as we are?

I tend to go searching for it, as so many historians and history buffs do, but sometimes it finds you!

Being on the spot when something historical goes down is one effective and exciting way of having all those probing questions have their way with you. One such event happened to Tank and me on our visit to St Louis, Missouri, in June 2012. The day we came to town we had no idea that a particular landmark event was about to take place beside the steps of the Old Courthouse. That event was the unveiling and dedication of the Dred and Harriet Scott Statue.

The Dred Scott case is famous.  Dred Scott was a black slave who sued for his freedom. He began in 1846 and didn’t give up until the case made it to the US Supreme Court in 1857. The final decision in the case was made by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger B. Taney, who ruled that Dred & Harriet were not citizens and therefore could not sue and had to remain slaves. The consequences of this influenced Abraham Lincoln, the outbreak of the civil war and the emancipation of slaves. The Scotts were freed after the case but by their owners, the Blow family.

These links are excellent:

As an extensive group of people gathered around the front of the Old Courthouse, milling patiently in the high summer heat, with the statue still cocooned in its red shroud, all manner of thoughts paraded through my mind.

For Tank and me, it seemed that history was calling, a history stretching back over 150 years to antebellum America when slavery was a hot political and social issue. And, appropriately, an issue of liberty and property, no less, for you may recall that liberty is being free from oppression and property is ‘you’, and no one has a right to you and your worth but you (to paraphrase John Locke)! But of course these principles did not extend to black slaves in America, as the decision in Dred Scott's case illustrated only too well.

Here we were, standing on the old steps where thousands of men, women, children and babies were bought and sold as chattel. Sobering and chilling. But now, in this same spot, a black slave and his wife were being remembered and celebrated for their courage, determination and historical significance.  What an auspicious moment!

Civil war swept this 'antebellum' era away. And slavery and the slave trade in America were finished. A new era was coming, of progress and prosperity, of great waves of free emigrants and different masters. And all the while and forever after the wound of slavery ran long and deep. Festering due to the racism that underpinned it, slavery scarred the nation for the century to come.

However, on this particular day, June 8, 2012, the worst of what humanity can perpetrate upon itself was remembered as both tragedy and triumph… Dred & Harriet Scott, their heads held high, by the steps of the Old Courthouse in St Louis, looking out across the Mississippi, and into a future of freedom and hope. They made a difference.

Present at the dedication, Dred Scott Madison, Jr., great-great-grandson of Dred & Harriet, and his cousin Lynne Jackson, who worked tirelessly to have the statue erected on the south lawn of the Old Courthouse in St Louis.
He said, "I have often told her she's doing God's work, and she is, just as our great-great-grandmother and grandfather did. They dared to defy man's law and represent God's law. This is truly a nation under God, something that could never have been while slavery was in existence."

The plaque beneath this image displayed in the Old Courthouse Museum, St Louis, read: 'In the presidential election of 1856, the question of whether Kansas would be admitted as  a free state or a slave state dominated the debate. In August 1856, St Louisans gathered at the Courthouse to hear about this issue. So many people attended that the crowd overflowed into the street.'

The plaque beneath this image displayed in the Old Courthouse Museum, St Louis, reads: 'These westward pioneers, camped on the banks of the Mississippi River across from St Louis in 1846, could be headed west to settle in Oregon Territory. Is this black woman, in the left foreground, a slave or a free person? What would her future hold in her new home in the West?'

Images above are entirely from my 2012 album 'Go West, young man...or woman as the case may be'


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