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The infamous decision

About seven hundred fifty miles away and 150 years ago this week, the United States Supreme Court made a ruling--the most controversial of the 19th Century--that would change history.

But it was here in St. Louis that the Dred Scott case began--and the prelude to and consequences of that infamous decision in Washington are being commemorated this year.This weekend and on through Tuesday's 150th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of March 6, 1857, history is being re-enacted at Old Courthouse. But for those who can't be in St. Louis right now, educational events and a special exhibit will tell the story of a man and his quest for freedom at this historic building throughout 2007.

Interested in the case and decision--which took a civil war to overturn--my husband and I had phoned Angela da Silva, who heads the National Black Tourism Network in St. Louis, to arrange for a historic overview before the sesquicentennial events began.

When Scott, a slave, filed his "freedom suit" in 1846 the handwriting was on the wall, da Silva, 53, told us. "The country was a powder keg ready to explode, and just needed one more boost."

The Dred Scott decision 11 years later, in which the court ruled 7-2 that no blacks--slave or free--could be citizens of the United States and therefore had no right to sue in federal court, didn't "by itself bring on the Civil War," she said. "It just made it happen sooner."

Scott's case was long and complicated and defended by a long parade of lawyers. It began in St. Louis (where the lower court found for Scott in his case for freedom) and proceeded through five trials, according to da Silva, who has been instrumental in organizing exhibits and events in and around St. Louis to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the decision.

To help reconstruct the case and Scott's life, da Silva told us she had someone she'd like us to meet.

That someone turned out to be Lynne Jackson, who manages a major St. Louis law firm--and also happens to be a great-great-granddaughter of Dred Scott. Jackson, 55, is the fifth generation of her family to live in St. Louis and has also played a major role in planning events for the sesquicentennial.

Dred Scott was born a slave on a Virginia plantation around 1799, and moved with his first master, Peter Blow, to Alabama, where--according to records at Stillman College there--he married and had a son. However, their names are not known, and both had died by the time Blow and Scott moved on to Missouri.

Blow died in 1832, and by the next year Scott had been sold to John Emerson, an army surgeon, who was stationed at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. But the doctor was transferred and for the next three years served at Ft. Armstrong in Illinois, then for four years at Ft. Snelling, now in Minnesota but then a part of the Wisconsin Territory.

There Scott married Harriet Robinson, also a slave, with whom he had four children. Two sons died in infancy, and one daughter never married. But their fourth child, Lizzie, was Jackson's great-grandmother.

In 1840 the Scotts returned with the doctor and his wife to St. Louis. Three years later Emerson died, and that may have started Scott thinking about suing for freedom, Jackson said, as he seemingly had been devoted to the doctor. Several times he had been trusted to pack up the household and follow Emerson to new posts, even though he was traveling in free territory and could have escaped. Maybe "no one told him that even army officers and soldiers were not allowed to keep slaves on free soil," Jackson speculated.

With her husband dead, Irene Emerson began hiring the Scotts out to work for other families. In April 1846, with financial help from the Blow family, Scott's original owners, he and his wife filed the "freedom suit." Da Silva explained that some 300 other slaves had filed similar suits, and between the mid 1820s and 1852 Missouri courts regularly emancipated slaves whose masters--military men included--had taken them to live in free states.

After the lower court "found" for Scott, Irene Emerson appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court. There, in Scott vs. Emerson (1852), Chief Justice William Scott (no relation) tossed out nearly 30 years of Missouri precedents by stating that an owner taking a slave to a "state, territory or country" where slavery is prohibited did not entitle the slave to sue for his freedom.

By this time Irene Emerson had moved to Massachusetts and married Calvin Chaffee, a physician with antislavery leanings. She transferred ownership of Scott to her brother John Sanford, a wealthy merchant who had "personal and professional ties to St. Louis," da Silva told us, but lived in New York. This set the stage, she said, for a new attorney--the sixth--to discover a legal theory that might win Scott's freedom.

This was Roswell Martin Field, who had come to St. Louis in 1839. Field took the case at no charge and sued for Scott's freedom in federal court.

When the complex case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, da Silva said the question was not so much about slavery, but whether Congress or state legislatures had the power to outlaw it or decide what constituted citizenship.

Chief Justice Roger Taney, in delivering the court's 1857 ruling, went even further. He declared that blacks, whether slave or free, were not citizens, but instead were private property, and therefore could be taken into any territory and legally held there. He also declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional because "Congress had no power to prohibit slavery from the territories."

According to the "Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States," "American legal and constitutional scholars consider the Dred Scott decision . . . the worst ever rendered by the Supreme Court."

Scott's quest for freedom through the courts, though unsuccessful, changed the course of American history, and contributed to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. And Scott did finally enjoy the taste--though briefly--of freedom. Taylor Blow, one of Peter Blow's sons, bought him and his wife, and set them free. But as a free man, Dred Scott lived only nine months before dying of natural causes.

He was buried in St. Louis' Calvary Cemetery, where a gray granite marker reads: "Born c. 1799, died September 17, 1858, freed from slavery by his friend Taylor Blow. In memory of a simple man who wanted to be free."

Today, visitors to his grave leave pennies. Dozens of them, the Lincoln profile side up, lie on the granite marker.

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IF YOU GO

IMPORTANT SITES

St. Louis sites, exhibits and events on black history and/or the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Dred Scott decision include:

Historic Old Courthouse (11 N. 4th St.; 314-655-1700; www.nps.gov/jeff). The courtroom where Dred and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom (in 1847 and 1850) was converted to two courtrooms when the building's west wing was renovated in 1855. During the sesquicentennial an exhibit titled "A Legacy of Courage: Dred Scott and the Quest for Freedom" is on display in the rooms. Hours: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily.

Eugene Field House and Toy Museum (634 S. Broadway; 314-421-4689; www.eugenefieldhouse.org). This three-story red brick Greek Revival row house built around 1845 was home to Roswell Martin Field, the lawyer who sued for Scott's freedom. Though now known as the birthplace and childhood home of his son Eugene, the "children's poet" who later pioneered the personal newspaper column in the Chicago Daily News, it was recently designated a National Historic Landmark and has several Dred Scott-related displays. "Passport to the Past" is an interactive exhibition that compares and contrasts the lives of free and slave children in pre-Civil War days. Youngsters can dress up in period-style clothing and experience antebellum toys and games. Roswell's law office has also been re-created at the house. A seven-minute video about the elder Field and Scott is narrated by Lynne Jackson, a Scott descendant. Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Call to arrange a tour.

Missouri History Museum (Forest Park; 314-746-4599; www.mohistory.org). Among the museum's permanent exhibitions is "Seeking St. Louis," which explores how slavery and secession divided the city. Artifacts include uniforms, weapons, the painting "The Last Sale of Slaves" and the only known portrait of Dred Scott. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (until 8 p.m. Tuesday).

Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, White Haven (7400 Grant Road; 314-842-3298; www.nps.gov/ulsg). The home of Grant's wife, Julia Dent--and home for the Grants for a while--was once a 1,000-acre plantation with 30 slaves. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

Black World History Wax Museum (2505 St. Louis Ave.; 314-241-7057). The museum tells the stories of numerous African-American Missourians, including George Washington Carver and Dred and Harriet Scott. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Calvary Cemetery (5239 W. Florissant; 314-381-1313). Dred Scott, a Catholic, is buried here. There also is a marker, dedicated in 1999, to his wife, Harriet, who is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in North St. Louis.

Bellefontaine Cemetery (4947 W. Florissant; 314-381-0750. Peter Blow, Dred Scott's original owner, is buried here.

The National Black Tourism Network (314-865-0708 or 888-872-3773; www.tourism-network.net) offers a three-hour interactive tour, "From Fur Trappers to Ragtime Millionaires," of numerous sites related to black history. Sites include the Mary Meachem Freedom Crossing, the only fully documented Underground Railroad stop in a slave state. It also offers tours in Missouri to Arrow Rock (which had a large slave community), Pennytown (the first incorporated black community in the state--1871), and to plantations such as Pleasant Green, Crestmead and Prairie Park where antebellum mansions and slave quarters still stand.

--P.S.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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