Dred Scott, plaintiff for freedom

Sun Journal

Citizenship: He was born into slavery and his determined lawsuits ended in failure, but he died a free man.

February 15, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Amid the ornate mausoleums of the prominent, rich and powerful interred at St. Louis' Calvary Cemetery sits a simple headstone marking the grave of a man who lent his name to one of the U.S. Supreme Court's most notorious decisions.

Dred Scott was a slave who filed a lawsuit to win his freedom from his masters. After years of litigation, he lost. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, a Marylander, wrote that slaves were property protected by the Constitution. They could not be considered U.S. citizens, and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court. The ruling entered history as the Dred Scott decision, one of the darkest moments of American jurisprudence.

Dred Scott has remained a symbol of America's racist past. During his recent pastoral visit to St. Louis, Pope John Paul II referred to the Dred Scott case as reflecting a time when America's national character and moral vision were imperiled.

"In that case the Supreme Court of the United States declared an entire class of human beings -- people of African descent -- outside the boundaries of the national community and the Constitution's protection," the pope said. "After untold suffering and with enormous effort, that situation has, at least in part, been reversed."

Calling America to a "higher moral vision," Pope John Paul decried efforts to declare other classes of humans -- "the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped and others considered `unuseful' -- to be outside the boundaries of legal protection."

Who was the man behind the symbol of the Dred Scott decision? In St. Louis, 140 years after his death, there are still clues.

Dred Scott's gravesite is just down the road from the tomb of Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. In the same Calvary Cemetery, the largest Roman Catholic cemetery in St. Louis, are the graves of playwright Tennessee Williams and Dr. Thomas Dooley, a U.S. Navy doctor and founder of MEDICO, a medical mission in Laos.

For Robert Tabscott, a Presbyterian minister and a scholar of African-American studies, Dred Scott's grave is a place of pilgrimage.

"It seems to me if you're a constitutionalist, this is hallowed ground," says Tabscott, who teaches at Webster University in St. Louis. "It's a sacred place.

"In the context of the constitutional process, the grave of Dred Scott is symbolically the most important grave in America, because it distinguishes the question of who is entitled to the rights and privileges of citizenship," he said. "And once we resolve that question, he looms as the symbol in American life of our desire to be free, to have a place for ourselves."

For a century, Scott's gravesite, like those of many slaves, went unmarked. In 1957, a Catholic priest and descendants of Taylor Blow, Scott's last owner who bought his freedom, and Harriet Scott, Dred's wife, bought the simple granite headstone that reads: "Dred Scott, born about 1799, died Sept. 17, 1858, Freed from slavery by his friend, Taylor Blow."

The story of Dred Scott's struggle for freedom is told on the walls of the Old Courthouse, a grand old building in front of St. Louis' Gateway Arch. It was here that Scott lost his first trial when the case was dismissed on a technicality. He won here three years later, but the verdict was overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court.

Scott based his lawsuit on an 1807 Missouri territorial law, reaffirmed in 1824 when Missouri became a state, that allowed slaves to petition the court for freedom if they could show that they were the child of a free person, had once lived in a free state or had once been granted freedom.

Scott was born a slave in Virginia about 1799 and moved to St. Louis in 1830 with his master, Peter Blow. Apparently in need of money, Blow sold Scott to Dr. John Emerson, a U.S. Army surgeon stationed at a barracks near St. Louis.

Scott accompanied Emerson when he was transferred first to Fort Armstrong, Ill., in 1834, and then to Fort Snelling in Minnesota in 1836, both of them free states. In 1836, Scott married Harriet Robinson, a slave who was then given to Emerson.

Emerson married in 1838, to Eliza Irene Sanford. The surgeon died in 1843 and ownership of the Scotts transferred to his wife. When the Scotts tried to buy their freedom from her, she refused, and the couple filed suit in St. Louis on April 6, 1846.

The Scotts were supported in their quest by a white abolitionist lawyer, Francis Murdoch, who filed the suit for them, but soon left town for California, leaving the Scotts in the lurch. The sons of Peter Blow, Dred Scott's original owner, stepped in to help shepherd his case, hiring lawyers and paying the legal bills.

In June 1847, the Scotts' freedom was denied on a technicality, and a new trial was ordered. The second trial did not come for three years, when a jury ruled in their favor and they were freed.

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