A history lesson to remember


As sunlight streamed through the 10th floor windows of the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse downtown, history was busy repeating itself. “All rise. The Circuit Court of St. Louis County is now in session,” read the bailiff. “The honorable Judge Alexander Hamilton presiding.” “The clerk will call the first case.” “The case of Dred Scott versus Irene Emerson, your honor.”

With those words, 26 students from Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy embarked upon an historical adventure, the reenactment of a trial that strained the bounds of law, tested the limits of human freedom and pushed the nation into a war that would end well over a century before any of youngsters gathered this bright Wednesday morning were born.

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“Experiential learning is what they’ll remember,” said fourth grade teacher Sue Lapp as she took in the aura of the courtroom. “Ten years from now, if we ask them to remember something about the fourth grade, it will be sitting in this place and doing this trial.”

The idea of setting up a mock trial of the Dred Scott case was originally Lapp’s brainchild, a way to tie together the disparate elements of her social studies class, which included curricula on Black History Month, Missouri history and the judicial system. The case, originally tried in 1847, was a defeat for Scott, a slave seeking his freedom, but was later won on retrial in 1850. That decision, too, would be overturned by the state’s high court and – eventually – the United States Supreme Court, a move which reaffirmed slavery, destroyed the Missouri Compromise and helped put the country on a path to civil war.

The entire fourth grade participated in the event, which took place just blocks from the Old Courthouse where Scott’s real trial was held. The loan of a federal courtroom for the proceedings was courtesy of Judge Rodney Sippel, whose law clerk, SMDS-RJA parent Sarah Molina, donned her boss’s robes to play Judge Hamilton.

“It really brought the Dred Scott case to life and being in a real courtroom showed them the value of serving on a jury and good citizenship,” Molina said.

Every fourth-grader participated playing roles which included a bailiff, attorneys, narrators, witnesses and the disputing parties themselves. Twelve students acted as jurors who quickly discussed the case after the presentations were made. Just as in 1850, they arrived at a verdict in favor of Scott.

Their conclusion was not foreordained.

“We tried to make it as authentic as possible by not having the jury read from a script,” Lapp said. “They had their own preparation in advance and they were instructed to take notes so they could base their verdict solely on the information and facts they heard today.”

One guest in the courtroom broke into an especially bright smile at the decision. Lynne M. Jackson, the great-great granddaughter of Dred Scott was on hand to watch the reenactment and provide a few remarks afterward regarding her famous relative. Student Tiana Burrell had emailed her personally to see if she could attend.

Jackson said the event had been well performed and that she felt these types of mock trials provide memorable experiences for children.

“People say, ‘Yes, that sounds familiar. I think we learned that in school.’ But it’s such a vague remembrance,” said Jackson, founder of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation. “I always encourage people – not just with the Dred Scott case – to just get back into your history. Find out where we came from and what our values are supposed to be.”

After the trial, the children were given a brief tour of the Eagleton facility and were able to visit the law library, Judge Sippel’s chambers and various areas around the courthouse before returning to the school for a class discussion on what they had seen.

“I didn’t think it was going to be that high-tech,” said Matthew Bloom, 9, who played defense attorney Hugh Garland. “I didn’t think there’d be that many computers and TVs there.”

Ten-year-old Melanie Sallis, who played defendant Irene Ellison, said she was glad the verdict went against her character.

“She said she was going to keep the slave when really he should be free,” she said.

Macey Goldstein, who played defense lawyer Lyman Norris, called the event a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. He was impressed with Dred Scott’s fortitude in enduring the long and frustrating judicial process.

“I think he must have felt really confident because I wouldn’t be able to do all this,” said Macey, 9. “Dred Scott was really brave so he was really confident that he could win.”

Azucena Molina, 9, who played Scott himself, said she thought the slave must have been nervous, perhaps even angry because of all that had happened to him. She said the re-creation really opened up her eyes as to how difficult his lengthy battle for freedom must have been.

“I learned that it wasn’t as easy as I thought it was,” she said.

That’s part of the idea – promoting understanding through hands-on involvement.

“An experience like this really soaks into them,” said Jennifer Culp, parent of jury foreman Cody. “I think it has more of an impression on them so they’ll retain more.”

Head of school Cheryl Maayan said that she hoped to make the field trip an annual event. She noted that it fits well with the experiential orientation that guides many SMDS-RJA projects.

“This is part of our dream for our students, that they grow up to be leaders and people who weigh their values and think about what is important in the world when they have to make any decision big or small,” she said. “We hope that this day had an impact on their value system.”

It certainly seemed to make an impact on Liat Roth. During the tour, the 10-year old juror stared out at a commanding view of the Gateway Arch from the building’s 28th floor observation area. She had voted in Scott’s favor. Now, taking in the skyline, she speculated about how her counterparts might have felt on Scott’s real jury a century and a half ago.

“I would hope that they wanted him to be free because everyone has that right,” she said.