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Sold down the river

When we¹ve been betrayed, a common expression is ³I was sold down the river.² This traces back to the historical circumstances through which Dred Scott lived while in St. Louis, Missouri. Slaves in St. Louis were permitted to sue in the courts for freedom, under the doctrine ³once free, always free²‹and hundreds took advantage of this and successfully moved out of enslavement. For example, Dred Scott was taken by his owner, John Emerson, into the state of Illinois, where slavery was illegal, and into the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was prohibited by an act of Congress. When Scott returned to St. Louis, still as Emerson¹s slave, he learned about ³once free, always free,² and he brought a suit in the St. Louis District Court. Though he was successful in the lower court, the US Supreme Court ultimately denied his freedom. Just try to imagine how betrayed he must have felt when the Supreme Court ruled against him. I imagined, in Speak Right On, that having clung to and fought for freedom for eleven years, Harried and Dred Scott would not relinquish the dream. They would continue seeking freedom. But Dred was consumptive and unable to run, so he would have had to convince Harriet to leave without him, to lead their two daughters to freedom. Harriet speaks: - ³I don¹t know iffen I can really leave you‹it¹s what I fear most in the whole world.² - Still stroking her hair, Dred asked, ³And what is it you most hope for in the world?² - ³That we can stay a family.² - He nodded, and finally the tears sprung to his eyes and he answered, ³That¹s how it be sometimes. To get what you most want, you got to face what you most fear.² A recent story by Willis Ryder Arnold for St. Louis Public Radio highlights the risks involved for slaves such as Scott. If a slave lost his suit in court, he was often sold downriver to slavers in Mississippi and Louisiana, which were much harsher slave environments than St. Louis. There were also risks for the lawyers who represented the slaves, because they typically were not paid and often suffered a backlash among their peers. The difficulties of obtaining freedom through the courts will soon be commemorated in a sculpture by Preston Jackson (see sketch above, left). The Freedom Suits Memorial will be erected in the St. Louis Civil Courts building, and the artist intends to depict how hard and steep were the challenges. The article also includes quotes and a video clip by Judge David C. Mason, who conceived of commissioning the work. He read a line from the jury in the Scott case, which I had never heard before: ³White man, you have lost your power over this slave. He is now a free person to live in this city, own property, and have all the rights granted to other free persons or at least other free slaves,² Mason said. Despite the caveat, just imagine how wonderful those words would be to a man enslaved.

Burn down the icons
I was wrong


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Friday, 25 May 2018