Story from Fox2now.com, January 16, 2011:
It was a Civil War era reenactment like St. Louis had never seen: a slave sale on the steps of the Old Courthouse. It was part of a Lindenwood University history professor’s mission to remember the overlooked figures in St. Louis history. The ugly chapter of that history came alive Saturday.
Hundreds showed up, snapping photos, rolling video of an event that seemed very real. About 50 reenactors wore the dress of the day: slaves, slave owners, sheriff’s deputies, and courthouse clerks. There were no news cameras, home video when such a slave sale was really happening in St. Louis. Maybe it wouldn’t have drawn cameras anyway.
Slave sales and the now-uncomfortable trappings were a part of life then; with auctions held at the Old Courthouse when property owners would die, for instance; their property, slaves included, sold at a sheriff’s sale; old paintings inside the Old Courthouse Museum didn’t seem to tell the whole story.
“These were human beings who wanted the same things we want now,” said Angela da Silva, a reenactor and Lindenwood history professor. “Now we look at them as one lump of black mass. There’s no individualization. These were maybe not even people. But they were. They had names.”
They bore the pain. In reenactor Chris Sutton’s home video, you don’t just see it, you feel it.
The idea is to keep what happened from becoming just flat old photographs and documents in history books and instead – make it true to life: three-dimensional, real people — from the slaves who were sold to the slave owners who purchased them.
“I paid close to $800 for a skilled cook. While I was transacting business the person was hauled away and transported in a wagon, to the DeMenil mansion,” said reenactor, Phil McGourty of DeMenil Reenactors. “Some [people] were actually appalled.”
Professor da Silva said it was all part of honoring those history had yet to give their due. “We pulled those [slave] names from actual sale bills. We resurrected them from files in this building,” da Silva said. “They had children. They had desires. They wanted one thing: freedom.”
Dred Scott was one such name. He sued for his freedom at the Old Courthhouse only to have the U.S. Supreme Court rule in 1857 that Scott and other slaves “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect … [they] might justly … be reduced to slavery”.
“That was this case had such a pivotal part in history leading to the Civil War,” Jeffrey Blair instructed his daughters at the Dred Scott exhibit in the Old Courthouse, not missing this teaching point, with history coming alive.
“My goal has been accomplished,” da Silva said. “People do understand the horrors of what it was for families to be separated, never to be seen again and on these very steps that St. Louisans pass every single day.”
It really happened … here.
She said the last slave sale at the Old Courthouse was in 1861. Sunday’s event marked the beginning of St. Louis’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.