St. Louis’ Old Courthouse was built between 1839 and 1862. It was a public forum as well as a courthouse. Slaves were auctioned from its steps in estate settlements, while one man's suit for freedom helped plunge the country into Civil War. In the lower west courtroom one of the most important cases ever tried in the United States began. In 1847 and again in 1850, a slave named Dred Scott and his wife Harriet sued for, and were granted, their freedom. Appeals to higher courts by their owner took their freedom away, and led to the momentous Supreme Court decision of 1857, which upheld the ruling that they should remain slaves, and declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional. The Dred Scott Decision hastened the start of the Civil War. It is also the most famous of thousands of civil suits launched by slaves throughout the United States in the antebellum period to try to gain their freedom through the action of the courts. As such it represents another avenue toward freedom for slaves other than manumission or flight. The Old Courthouse stands only two blocks from the Gateway Arch and contains restored courtrooms, museum exhibits on the Dred Scott Decision, historical dioramas, and the headquarters of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Ranger-led tours are available at scheduled times, as are public programs on civil rights and slavery. Mock trials highlight the struggles of Dred and Harriet Scott for their freedom as well as lesser-known cases like that of Lucy Delaney, a 12 year old girl who sued for her freedom three years before the Scotts, or Caroline Williams, who challenged St. Louis’ segregation policies on public transportation in 1869.
Visitor Information: Currently open to public.
Location: Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, 11 North 4th Street, St. Louis, 63102
National Park Unit: No
Ownership: National Park Service
Location Type: Site
Freedom Seekers: Dred Scott