Thousands of tourists, journalists and academicians converged on St. Louis over the weekend to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to deny a Missouri slave the right to sue for his freedom.
In 1847, Dred Scott sued his owner in state court “on behalf of himself, his wife and his two daughters” to win his freedom. The circuit court ruled in favor of Scott’s owners, but allowed him to refile his lawsuit. Three years later, a jury decided in a St. Louis courtroom that Scott deserved to be free since his owners took him to live for several years in the non-slave territories of Wisconsin and Illinois. However, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision in 1852. Two years later, a persistent Scott filed a new lawsuit in an attempt to secure his freedom, claiming that he was a citizen, not a slave, and had the right to sue in federal court. The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, but the court ruled that Scott was not a citizen. As a slave, Scott was considered personal property and did not have the right to bring a lawsuit in a federal court.
It was against this historical backdrop that the state kicked off dozens of festivities on March 1st, including tours of the historic courthouse where Scott tried to obtain his freedom and a reenactment of the 1852 Missouri Supreme Court arguments by students at the Grace Hill Settlement House.
Lynne M. Jackson, Scott’s great-great granddaughter, criss-crossed the city over the weekend participating in various events honoring the legacy of her heroic forebear.
“Growing up, it was very important for us to know that we were descendants of Dred Scott,” says Jackson, who currently is the general services manager for the St. Louis-based law firm Bryan Cave. “Ten years ago, I realized that I needed to know so much more about this history.” Jackson has since started the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, aimed at educating young people about the sacrifice and struggles of her famous relative.
While tourism has always played an important role in Missouri’s economy, in recent years, more visitors have journeyed to St. Louis to learn more about the Dred Scott case.
“I did not learn much about this in high school or college,” said Timothy Healey during the festival. The 39-year-old made the four-hour journey from Chicago with his four children to participate in the weekend’s events. “Dred Scott was such a courageous individual who was determined to be free, no matter what the cost.”
Though last weekend marked the official kickoff of the commemorative programs, historic tours and other events will continue throughout the year.
“The Dred Scott trial, along with the ‘border wars’ taking part in the western part of the state between Missourians and Kansans, are two pivotal events that led to the American Civil War,” says Lori Simms, special markets manager for the Missouri Division of Tourism. “We think it’s important to tell this story and invite people to come experience it for themselves.”
Born around 1800, Scott migrated westward with his owner, Peter Blow. They traveled from Scott’s home state of Virginia to Alabama and then, in 1830, settled in St. Louis,
After Blow died, Scott was bought by army surgeon Dr. John Emerson, who later took Scott to the free state of Illinois. In the spring of 1836, after a stay of two and a half years, Emerson moved to a fort in the Wisconsin Territory, taking Scott along. While there, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson, a slave owned by a local justice of the peace. Ownership of Harriet was also transferred to Emerson. Ironically, Peter Blow’s sons, who were also childhood friends of Scott, helped pay Scott’s legal fees through the years. After the Supreme Court’s decision, the Blow’s sons purchased Scott and Harriett and set them free. Dred Scott died nine months later.
“I think the country itself is more obsessed with all of its past,” says Angela da Silva, the president of the National Black Tourism Network, a travel agency that specializes on lesser known aspects of Black and African culture.
To its credit, da Silva says Missouri has pumped real resources into encouraging its residents and tourists to explore the history of Blacks in the state.
“The state really understands the importance of Black heritage,” she says. “Now, people are willing to travel to learn about this history. It is very important.”
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