150 Years Later, Dred Scott Remembered

This year marks the 150th anniversary of what may be the Supreme Court's most notorious ruling — the Dread Scott Case. Later reversed, the Court ruled that slaves had no standing before the high court to demand their freedom, and that black people" had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Lynne Jackson is a descendant of Dred Scott. She talks about Scott's Legacy and the historic implications of the case.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

While on the subject of the Supreme Court, we thought it important to note that this year marks the 150th anniversary of what may be the Supreme Court's most notorious decision. It was 150 years ago that the court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slaves had no standing before the high court to demand their freedom, and that black people, quote, had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, unquote.

The Civil War and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution eventually reversed the results of the Scott case. And Dred Scott remains a pivotal character in American history, but much of his personal story remains unknown.

So joining us to talk about that - the history and legacy of Dred Scott - is Lynne Jackson. She is the great, great granddaughter of Dred Scott and the founder of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation. She joins us from KWMU in St. Louis, Missouri. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. LYNNE JACKSON (Founder, Dred Scott Heritage Foundation): Thank you, Michel. It's a pleasure to be here today.

MARTIN: Who was Dred Scott, and how did he come to be before the Supreme Court?

Ms. JACKSON: Well, Dred Scott was an enslaved person who had a very humble persona. But, however, he was illiterate, but he was intelligent. And he knew that he had a right to sue, because he had been in free territory for maybe a sum of seven years. And because of that, he purchased - I'm sorry - he sought to purchase his freedom from his owner, but she refused. And so, he took his next option, which was to sue in the courts.

MARTIN: Now, many enslaved Americans of that era ran, or - why didn't he run away? Why go to the court?

Ms. JACKSON: Well, there are two reasons, I think, that's true. One is because he, first of all, thought about his family. He had a wife and two daughters. In fact, one of them was an infant. The other one was around eight years old. Two girls. And I don't believe he felt that he wanted a life of on the run for them with a potential of being caught.

The other reason, I believe, he really felt that, as a man, he had the right to go to court like any other man.

MARTIN: And how is it that he was able to go to court? I mean, was it something in Missouri law that allowed him to go to court to begin with? And how long did that whole process take? I think we all should have live in a "Law and Order" world, where we see these complicated issues resolved in an hour, and it wasn't that way.

Ms. JACKSON: No. You're right. You're exactly right. No. He knew that the law said once free, always free. And this was something that happened in Missouri. In fact, recently, we found over 300 cases of slaves petitioning for their freedom here. And those are documented. So with that option, he chose to do that. However, the first case - even though he should have been able to go to the court and it could have been a very quick turnaround - there was a problem of hearsay. There was a person who said that his wife said that he was owned by Irene Emerson, and so it took two years and two months to bring that back into the courtroom - at which time, he was actually freed by 12 white men, a jury of 12 white men who decided in his favor.

It was immediately appealed by Mrs. Emerson, the widow of Dr. Emerson, his owner. And therefore, she won the next case. And then it was appealed to Missouri Supreme Court, at which time Dred Scott said times are not as they once were. There was a much more pro-slavery persuasion on the court. And Missouri was a divided state. So they lost at the Missouri Supreme Court level.

MARTIN: And eventually…

Ms. JACKSON: Could have been over at that point. However, Roswell Field determined that he found a way for the diversity clause to allow them to take it take it to a federal level. Over 11 years and five trials later, it was determined that he would not be free.

MARTIN: Eleven years and five trials. Wow, that's amazing. But it turns out that very soon after the court ruled, Dred Scott and his family were freed anyway. How did that happened?

Ms. JACKSON: This is where the story gets much more interesting. As it turns out, Mrs. Emerson decided early on, around 1850, that she would go and - we say - seek her fortune. Sometimes we think maybe she was a gold-digger. But she went to Massachusetts and married Dr. Calvin Chaffee. And Dr. Chaffee was an ardent abolitionist. So it appears that she did not tell him that she owned slaves. In fact, she had given them over to the care of her brother John Sanford, which is why the court case says Dred Scott versus John Sanford.

Well, as it turns out, he read in the paper that his wife owned these slaves when the trial came down, and he was furious. So at that time, he began to talk with the attorney who was in (unintelligible) Montgomery Blair, Roswell Field in St. Louis, that wonderful exchange of letters which we have copies of, shows how ardently he was against this and how immediately he wanted to effect their freedom. And it was able to be done that they would quitclaim Dred, Harriet, Eliza and Libby, the whole family over to Taylor Blow, who was the son of the original owner.

MARTIN: So this new - so the - his owner's new husband pressured her to release them. That's an amazing story.

Ms. JACKSON: Absolutely. It is.

MARTIN: So how - we have about a minute left. So after he was freed, how much time did he spend as a free man, and how did he live after that?

Ms. JACKSON: Well, unfortunately, I think he lived a year and a half. He died 18 months later of tuberculosis. But for the 18 months that he lived, he was able to know what an important case this was. He was famous. People offered him a thousand dollars to tour the country with him and tell his story. He didn't do that, however. But when people came to St. Louis, they would see him at Barnum Hotel, and he was very well known.

MARTIN: That's - it's an amazing story. What's the one thing, Lynne, that you would hope Americans would take away from your great, great grandfather's story? Very briefly, if you would.

Ms. JACKSON: If you know the right thing to do, go for it. Do it. Even if it doesn't look like it's going to work out, in the end, it usually does.

MARTIN: Well, it's a wonderful story. I thank you so much for being willing to tell it to us. The abbreviated version of what is a very complicated and fascinating story.

Ms. JACKSON: It is, indeed. Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Lynne Jackson is the founder of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation. She joined us from the studios of KWMU in St. Louis.

And we have a link to the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation Web site. You can find that at our site, npr.org/tellmemore.

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