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Image: Mary E. Neighbour, author of Speak Right On

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How I Became Interested in Dred Scott

My interest in Dred Scott began in 1997, when I moved to St. Louis, Missouri, with my husband (and our dog and cat).As I visited the local historical sites, Dred Scott's name appeared often, yet the information overwhelming addressed legal matters—and I wanted to know more about the character of the man who had triggered an infamous Supreme Court decision and pitched the country into civil war.

Frustratingly, what I could learn about Dred Scott, the man, was scant.Scant, but tantalizing.The few news reports about him that were published after the Supreme Court decision were wildly contradictory.I decided to focus on quotes that were attributed to him.Such as:

There is not a drop of the white man's blood in my veins. My ancestors were free people of Africa.

I responded strongly to the pride and eloquence of this statement, to the solid sense of identity, as well as the implicit sophistication regarding any notions of white superiority.

Another magnetizing quote, just a fragment, occurs when Dred Scott referred to Henry and Taylor Blow, the sons of his original slave owner.He referred to the Blow brothers as:

. . . them boys I was raised with.

I became confused, as further research informed me that Dred Scott was considerably older: as much as 15 years older than these boys.Was his phrase a colloquialism?Or did it represent affection and intimacy?

Of course, these two brothers would prove indispensable in his struggle to win his freedom.History is clear about that.They found him lawyers, put up the bond money, helped sustain the Scott family through the tedious years of litigation, and they ultimately were responsible for the manumission of Dred, his wife, and daughters.

A final quote attributed to Dred Scott sealed my fate as a researcher into the life and times of Dred Scott:

I thought it hard that white men should draw a line of their own on the face of the earth—on one side of which a black man was to become no man at all—and never say a word to the black man about it until they had got him on that side of the line.

I began to "hear" the voice of Dred Scott.He was engaging, a man with a nimble mind and a fluent tongue.Though he was deprived an education, he was articulate, even eloquent.Though he was enslaved, his voice reached the US Supreme Court.

What happens to an agile mind that is deprived literacy?What happens to eloquence that has a bit shoved in its mouth to hold down the tongue?The paradox fascinated me.At first I wondered if he pretended to be illiterate.Stories exist of slaves who did just that, for fear of punishment.But it was the first quote, the expression of pride in his African ancestors, that swayed me toward believing that his power with words came from his African heritage, from the griot tradition of storytelling and history keeping.And the more I explored this rich legacy, the more I understood the roots of much of our current wealth of myth and lore, and the more I began to resent those who would rate oral traditions below written traditions.

It took only one more ingredient to launch me on writing this novel.I read a brief parable, the satchels tale, and it became the crucible in which I could mix all the ingredients I had researched, and blend in the many more I would need:

At the beginning of the world, god set down two satchels.The white man come along, opened the one, and claimed the paper and pencil.The black man come along, opened the other, and brung up the hoe and reed flute.Some say this explain why the black man be slave to the white man. . . .

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About the Author

When you grow up with the surname Edsell, you learn to have a sense of humor. I like to joke that I came out the same year as the beleaguered car.

I've always loved to read, and I studied literature and creative writing in college and psychoanalytic psychotherapy after that, doing a short stint as a therapist before returning to writing. I wrote in technical fields until 1994, when I began my own business: interviewing individuals and writing their memoirs, family histories, and organizational histories.Having authored two dozen such books, I developed an ear for first-person narrative and an abiding interest in depicting the fully-lived experiences of a past era that remain relevant today.

Prior to Speak Right On, I wrote poems, short stories, and—always—a private journal.My short fiction has won awards and been recognized by the Sacramento Public Library, ByLine Magazine, the Mid-American Review, the Alligator Juniper magazine, as well as the Whidbey Island Writers' Association. My story "Gray" won the 2009 William Van Wert Short Fiction Award.

Speak Right On is my first and only novel. The Pacific Northwest Writers' Association honored it in 2004 for being among the best unpublished first novels. In 2006 it found an enthusiastic publisher in Matthew Miller, of The Toby Press (now Koren Publishers, Jerusalem). The novel and my writing received a good deal of praise from major review publications as well as individual readers. In 2008, rights reverted back to me.

In the nearly ten years since Speak Right On was published, I have watched silently as society challenges the civil rights gains of the mid-twentieth century. And I do believe the maxim, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. I need to take my own advice and speak out.

There is much in Speak Right On that touches upon this country's racial strife, so I am re-releasing it, hoping to have many honest, respectful conversations about the divide between white and black. With a new foreword by Lynne Jackson, the great-great-granddaughter of Harriet and Dred Scott—who also has much to contribute to this national dialogue—I am emboldened to ask others what they are thinking, what they are feeling.

A book doesn't usually do that; it's usually a one-sided affair, with only authors revealing their thoughts and feelings. The airing of readers' reactions typically is left to book groups. But not now—now I want to hear what you have to say. In my blog I will use Speak Right On as a springboard and reference point, but you don't need to read my book to join the conversation. Just speak right on, from the heart.

I have been married since 1991. Andrew, my husband, is a scientist and now retired university administrator, currently working as a painter, photographer, and videographer.I have no children, though I am fortunate to include Andrew's daughter Hannah as one of my closest relationships.I work at home in Santa Fe, and I love words and books almost as much as I love our little family: cats Scout and Jem (named for the characters in my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird) and dogs Max and Honey (who named themselves).

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Learn More: Links & Resources

[Please let us know if a link is not working--just use the contact tab to send an email. Thank you!]

A selection of websites containing information about the Dred Scott Case 

1.Video overview of Dred Scott v. John Sanford

2.National Archives and Records Administration

Our Documents, Dred Scott v. Sanford

3.Facts and images compiled by Washington University in St. Louis

The Dred Scott Case

4.Facts compiled by the National Parks Service

The Dred Scott Case

5.The Library of Congress, multiple pages of related information: 

A selection of articles about the Dred Scott Case

  • Article re: the relevance of the Dred Scott case to today's cultural and political discussions

  • Article from Street Law and the Supreme Court Historical Society

Landmark Cases, Dred Scott v. Sandford,

  • Findlaw's article and links

Landmark Decisions, Scott v. Sandford,

  • New-York Daily Tribune. (New York, New York), March 9, 1857

The Dred Scott Case

  • Anti-Slavery Bugle. (New Lisbon, Ohio), March 21, 1857

The Decision of the Supreme Court

  • Holmes County Republican. (Millersburg, Holmes County, Ohio), April 16, 1857

The Original Dred Scott a Resident of St. Louis--Sketch of His History

  • The following collection presents 396 pamphlets from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, published from 1822 through 1909, by African-American authors and others who wrote about slavery, African colonization, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and related topics.

The slavery question. Dred Scott decision : to the free voters of Ohio.

  • In honor of the Manuscript Division's centennial, its staff has selected for online display approximately ninety representative documents spanning from the fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.

Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote a letter to Caleb Cushing on November 9, 1857, thanking Cushing for his support of Taney's decision in the Dred Scott case.

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Mary talks at the Library of Congress

Let's talk about humbling experiences, because by all indications, Dred Scott was a humble man. He struggled to protect his family from the predations of slavery, and he did that quietly, respectfully—doggedly—seeking justice through one of the bulwarks of slavery itself: the judicial system.

One hundred fifty years after the US Supreme Court declared Dred Scott a piece of property with no rights a white man was bound to honor, I entered the Library of Congress to talk about my research and my book about Dred Scott. On March 6, 2007, with the humility I imagine Dred Scott may have felt walking into the Old Courthouse in St. Louis to mark his X on the petition that would begin his suit, I entered this great center of culture and learning. I felt honored to be among the many the Center for the Book has honored over the decades.
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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. 

Recent Comments
Mary Neighbour
Jeannette, your comment is much appreciated. It is the daily headlines that have prompted me to write this blog. I hope you'll com... Read More
Thursday, 05 November 2015 21:08
Mary Neighbour
Hi Claudia - I watched the "60 Minutes" piece just last night (I taped it). My impression is that your recall is not faulty but th... Read More
Thursday, 05 November 2015 21:15
Mary Neighbour
Welcome, back, Jeannette. Adding your voice and your awareness to these issues is, I believe, crucial to the journey we are all on... Read More
Thursday, 05 November 2015 21:12
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Jody D. Armour's "Nigga Theory"

pottery shards

I recommend this interview to all who want to understand some cultural perspectives on using the n-word. Armour also advocates feeling uncomfortable about these issues. I agree: we need to grapple with what makes us uncomfortable. Our unease works like a wall, keeping us separate from what is different. 

Armour: As the US Supreme Court said in the Dred Scott decision, “Blacks have no rights that a white man has to respect.” It continued into Jim Crow, and then ...

Original link (To return to this website, click the back arrow in the upper left of your screen.)
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When Conservatives Cite Lincoln: From Dred Scott to Obergefell

young lincolnIf you're like me, you read about subjects from various sources. I've read numerous articles over recent months about how the Obergefell decision is like the Dred Scott decision. In many of the articles, the authors quote Lincoln and the Supreme Court and legal opinions from the day and legal opinions from today . . . and without researching all those quotes, all I can know is that all of these authors can't be correct.

I do know, from my own research on Dred Scott and his times, that to equate Obergefell to Dred Scott is to express ignorance about the issues represented by these cases. And now, from an excellent article by Corey Robin, I understand more about the nuances of some of those Lincoln's quotes. 

Read the article and let me know what you think. 

(To return to this blog page after reading the article, click the back arrow at the top left of your screen.)
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Million Man March celebrates 20th anniversary in Washington, DC

I'm wondering how many whites reading this article will stop and reflect, trying to imagine what it would be like if we were surrounded each day by people of a different skin color--a people, taken as a whole, with a long history of hating us and killing us because of our skin color?

This article expresses the wonder of black men united, surrounded by other black men, expressing joy in being together. Let it affect you . . . 

(To return to this blog page after reading the article, click the back arrow at the top left of your screen.)
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The Million Man March: Its effect may be debatable. Its significance is not.

One question hanging over the rally is how the youthful Black Lives Matter movement, which presents itself as leaderless, will jibe with the ...
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'Life Is Not A White Privilege' T-Shirt Makes Racial Inequality More Visible

According to Imani, the idea for the statement on the shirts was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. "I've noticed that a lot of people really ...
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Harry Belafonte on activism, unrest and the importance of making people squirm

We discussed emerging African American leaders, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the value of getting people out of their comfort zone.
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Fact and fiction

Notes from my research
There is very little written in the historical record about Dred Scott, the person. Details and analyses of the court case bearing his name fill libraries, but no one bothered to register his biographical data--probably because the Supreme Court declared him an item of property. In fact, the court said that he and all descendants of Africans had no rights which the white man was bound to consider. 
However, we do know that Dred Scott was a flesh-and-blood man who lived much of his adult, enslaved life seeking freedom for himself and his family. We know he is the beloved ancestor of real people alive today. So, though we know little about him, we know this: he was a family man. It is from that certain truth that I began writing about him and his times, and the most frequent questions readers have is: "What is fact, and what is fiction?"  

So here are notes from my research. I think you'll find it fascinating . . .
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Recent Comments
Mary Neighbour
Thanks, Jennet, for taking the time to read this post. You've hit the nail on the head, as far as I'm concerned: I want this book ... Read More
Thursday, 05 November 2015 21:27
Mary Neighbour
Hi Lloyd, and thanks for joining this discussion. Of course, I embrace your viewpoint a hundred percent. In school, I was never mu... Read More
Thursday, 05 November 2015 21:29
Mary Neighbour
Lisanne, I couldn't ask for a better reader experience than you've described, and I'm glad that you've raised this point about the... Read More
Friday, 20 November 2015 14:31
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HISTORY: A look at the Dred Scott case | PHOTOS

A statue of Dred and Harriett Scott stands outside the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. The slaves sought their freedoms by filing a lawsuit, ...
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