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.