Old Courthouse

looking up at the statue of Dred & Harriet Scott with the Old Courthouse\'s classical columns behind
Statue of Dred and Harriet Scott in front of the Old Courthouse

NPS Photo/Jennifer Clark

Quick Facts

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The Old Courthouse was the site of the first two trials of the pivotal Dred Scott case in 1847 and 1850. It was also where Virginia Minor's case for a woman's right to vote came to trial in the 1870s. An important building in the history of St. Louis and the history of Civil Rights, the Old Courthouse is currently closed to the public. 

St. Louis' Old Courthouse is listed in the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network To Freedom. The Network to Freedom recognizes sites, programs and facilities with verifiable associations to the Underground Railroad. The phenomenon popularly known as the Underground Railroad has been broadly defined by the National Park Service as the "historic resistance to enslavement through escape and flight." The Old Courthouse is linked with the story of the Underground Railroad, and with that of slavery, as a property associated with legal challenges to slavery. It was a public forum as well as a courthouse. Enslaved people were auctioned from its steps in estate settlements, while one man's suit for freedom helped plunge the country into Civil War. The Old Courthouse was the site of over 300 suits for freedom, but one gained notoriety. In 1847, Dred Scott, with his wife Harriet, sued for, and were granted, their freedom. After many appeals, the case was decided upon by the Supreme Court. The decision stated that slaves were property, and as such, had no right to sue. The Dred Scott Decision hastened the start of the Civil War.

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4 minutes, 32 seconds

Dred and Harriet Scott, enslaved African Americans, played a major role in civil rights history, starting in 1846. This short video re-enacts a hypothetical conversation in which the couple discusses the risks to their family if they sue their enslaver for their freedom at the Old Courthouse…and those they face if they don’t.

Last updated: August 16, 2021