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Why does Dred Scott remain relevant today?

Hardly a day goes by without someone invoking the name of Dred Scott. Take a look at the news feed scrolling at the top of this blog page, and you'll notice that people of all stripes and beliefs use his name in a host of social justice issues, from abortion to incarceration, from citizenship to marriage equality, from Black Lives Matter to judicial overreach. 

Dred Scott's name is tossed about so frequently that I'd like to state some facts. Dred Scott was

  • a 19th-century American, born into slavery in Virginia
  • held as the slave of Peter Blow until 1832, then held in slavery by John Emerson
  • held as the slave of Emerson's widow, Irene, all through the historic court case, Dred Scott v. John Sanford, which ultimately reached the US Supreme Court
  • officially declared by the Supreme Court to be a slave without any rights of citizenship

Why does Dred Scott remain relevant today? Excuse my cynicism, but I believe the answer lies with our typical ignorance of our own history. When I moved in 1996 to St. Louis—where Dred Scott's legal case began—I saw a plaque in the pavement dedicated to Dred and Harriet Scott. I recognized the names, but I couldn't remember whether they had won or lost that case, and I guessed wrong. Having talked to others through the years, I know my failure is shared by many.

Within a few months, I was learning more history at the Gateway Arch at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, where I read that the sons of Peter Blow manumitted Dred Scott after the Supreme Court decision declared him a piece of property. Intrigued, I embarked on a fruitless search for a biography on Dred Scott.

Within another few months, I was standing in the rotunda of the Old St. Louis Courthouse, where papers in the case were first filed on April 6, 1846. The courthouse is now a National Parks museum, and a ranger held up a single sheet of paper with print on both sides—perhaps five hundred words, at most. She said, "This is all that is known about Dred Scott."

You could have knocked me over with that sheet of paper.

I spent the next three years researching everything I could find about Dred Scott, including contacting his descendants who lived in the St. Louis vicinity. Of course, there was nothing I uncovered that would extend that single-sheet biography, but the Dred Scott story—the Dred Scott mystery—wholly captivated me.

In this blog I will share what I learned. And I will comment on current news items relating to Dred Scott from the perspective that he remains relevant today as an enduring symbol of social injustice and racial discrimination.

I think it's important that we find some way in this country to have reasoned, respectful conversations about race and politics.

Please comment on this blog—I'd like to know your thoughts. 

Jody D. Armour's "Nigga Theory"
Mary talks at the Library of Congress

Comments 6

 
Guest - JeannetteGagan on Sunday, 11 October 2015 22:32

Thank you! So many individuals, including myself, are very much in need of knowing the truth of the past and how that affects present day affairs including violence involving racial matters that make daily headlines.

Thank you! So many individuals, including myself, are very much in need of knowing the truth of the past and how that affects present day affairs including violence involving racial matters that make daily headlines.
Mary Neighbour on Thursday, 05 November 2015 21:08

Jeannette, your comment is much appreciated. It is the daily headlines that have prompted me to write this blog. I hope you'll come back and visit more of my posts.

Jeannette, your comment is much appreciated. It is the daily headlines that have prompted me to write this blog. I hope you'll come back and visit more of my posts.
Guest - Claudia Saville on Tuesday, 03 November 2015 14:46

The show "60 Minutes" had a wonderfully informative piece on slave trade last week. I wish I had better recall to relate the facts that so interested me. A group of people are searching for and finding very little remains of the actual ships that were used to transport slaves. Some of them sank, and it seems possible the "cargo" also went down. In the 1840's the ships were mostly made of wood, and the longs buried remains are decaying under the water. This show was not focused a lot on the slavery in the United States...but as a world trade business.

The show "60 Minutes" had a wonderfully informative piece on slave trade last week. I wish I had better recall to relate the facts that so interested me. A group of people are searching for and finding very little remains of the actual ships that were used to transport slaves. Some of them sank, and it seems possible the "cargo" also went down. In the 1840's the ships were mostly made of wood, and the longs buried remains are decaying under the water. This show was not focused a lot on the slavery in the United States...but as a world trade business.
Mary Neighbour on Thursday, 05 November 2015 21:15

Hi Claudia - I watched the "60 Minutes" piece just last night (I taped it). My impression is that your recall is not faulty but that the news report was not memorable--at least not to me. Your recount here is very much appreciated, as it seems to me you got more out of it than I did. Thank you!

Hi Claudia - I watched the "60 Minutes" piece just last night (I taped it). My impression is that your recall is not faulty but that the news report was not memorable--at least not to me. Your recount here is very much appreciated, as it seems to me you got more out of it than I did. Thank you!
Guest - Jeannette Gagan on Tuesday, 03 November 2015 20:26

In the past I've heard accounts of how ships transported slaves and the horrid conditions in which they lived throughout the journey to America....the sometimes referred to "home of the free and the brave." Even though advances have been made regarding racial discrimination much remains to be done. I appreciate this opportunity to converse about race and politics.

In the past I've heard accounts of how ships transported slaves and the horrid conditions in which they lived throughout the journey to America....the sometimes referred to "home of the free and the brave." Even though advances have been made regarding racial discrimination much remains to be done. I appreciate this opportunity to converse about race and politics.
Mary Neighbour on Thursday, 05 November 2015 21:12

Welcome, back, Jeannette. Adding your voice and your awareness to these issues is, I believe, crucial to the journey we are all on--that of recognizing the atrocities of the past and correcting the skewed legacies we live with now. Thanks for speaking up!

Welcome, back, Jeannette. Adding your voice and your awareness to these issues is, I believe, crucial to the journey we are all on--that of recognizing the atrocities of the past and correcting the skewed legacies we live with now. Thanks for speaking up!
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