Saturday, September 15, 2012

St. Louis - The Courthouse and Dred Scott

While admiring the Arch I struck up a short conversation with a man wearing a faded Cubs tee shirt. He also was visiting from Chicago with two other friends over the long weekend. I seem to have a habit of running into Chicagoans when traveling. I have met them gazing at a waterfall in Ohio, strolling down the street in Key West and met people born in the suburbs in Palm Springs and Yellowstone. At the street corner he went his way and I started across another small park towards the historic St. Louis Courthouse.

I had initially intended to just walk by the Courthouse assuming, it being Sunday, that it would be closed. It was covered by scaffolding undergoing renovation. This is something else I seem to have a habit of running into. The Doumo in Florence, main cathedral in Mexico City, even the 18th century courthouse on St. Martin, it's cornice topped by a carved wooden pineapple, have all been at least partially covered by scaffolding or netting during my visits. I was delighted to discover that the courthouse was open and climbed the steps to it's entrance.

Inside rooms contain historical displays. There is a plexiglas model in one of these rooms showing the original structure and how it had been expanded over the years. The soaring, beautifully painted rotunda and dome were festooned with patriotic stars and stripes banners.

The sign outside had said that two of the courtrooms had been restored to their original 19th century appearance. I stepped into the gift shop to ask where they were located. A Park Ranger, who had been visiting with the woman behind the counter, escorted me out into the main hall to direct me to them, filling me in on the history of the building. A remarkable history it was. This was the site of the Dred Scott hearing. Dred Scott, born into slavery, was owned by an army officer. He accompanied the officer to several of his posts. He eventually sued his master for his freedom, his argument being that, since some of the posts had been in free states, when he set foot in them he became a free man, regardless of where he currently resided. The court's decision was that, as he was born into slavery he was not a citizen and therefore had no legal right to sue. His suit was declared invalid. The suit and decision were more complicated than this, involving appeals and questions of protection of property.  Legally Dred Scott was viewed as his master's property. The decision inflamed passions on both sides of the issue. It influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln which eventually led to the civil war.

By 1860 more free blacks than slaves resided in St. Louis. A resident's license for a free black, however, required the posting of a $1000 bond, which was a considerable amount at the time.

The courtroom where the Dred Scott decision was heard no longer stands as it once did. A sagging ceiling required building two supporting walls to shore it up, cutting the space up into two courtrooms on either side of a corridor.

On the second floor of the Courthouse are the two restored courtrooms. The second floor is accessed by cast iron steps with filigree risers which date from 1851. The Park Ranger pointed out that the staircase has no vertical support, instead it is anchored to the wall.

Back outside I wandered the downtown streets back to where I would catch the bus to the guesthouse. It being Sunday the streets were almost eerily quiet. Although the majority of the structures in the downtown area are modern, besides the Courthouse a few historic buildings still stand. The city hall is a baroque beauty under it's coating of grime. It is badly in need of some TLC as in it's present state it appears almost abandoned. Across the street from it is a court building. On it's upper floors classical columns hold up a stepped pyramid roof. Unfortunately  between downtown and the neighborhoods to the south several blocks on the edge of the downtown area appear to have been razed to construct elevated highways and off ramps. This has created a desolate, almost war torn looking landscape. From the few buildings that remain it looks as if this area may, at one time, have been historic in nature.

St. Louis is by no means alone in this form of destruction. Throughout the U.S. cities have destroyed their heritage, often to accommodate this countries addiction to the private car. Once this history is gone it cannot be regained. We owe it to future generations to restore and preserve history. The knowledge of where we are cannot be fully understood or appreciated without the knowledge of how we arrived there.

No comments:

Post a Comment