Dred Scott's fight for freedom is a Minnesota story

Dred Scott
Dred Scott and Harriet Robinson Scott in an illustration from the Library of Congress.
Library of Congress

Dred Scott was a Black man enslaved in the 1800s who sued his slave owners to gain his freedom. His famous case for freedom was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857.

Scott died in Missouri 150 years ago this month. The Minnesota connection? He lived for a time at Fort Snelling. For more, host Cathy Wurzer talked to Bill Convery, director of research at the Minnesota Historical Society.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: You know, we started a Minnesota history segment on this show not too long ago and called it Minnesota Now and Then. Because you can learn a lot about the present from the past. Today, we're going to learn about Dred Scott. He was a Black man enslaved in the 1800s who sued his slave owners to gain his freedom. His famous case for freedom was rejected by the US Supreme Court back in 1857. Scott died in Missouri during the month of September 150 years ago.

The Minnesota connection-- he lived for a time at Fort Snelling. For more, we're joined by Dr. Bill Convery. He's the director of research at the Minnesota Historical Society. Bill, how are you?

BILL CONVERY: Hello.

CATHY WURZER: Hi.

BILL CONVERY: I'm well. How are you?

CATHY WURZER: I am fine. Thanks for being with us. I appreciate your time.

BILL CONVERY: Oh, glad to do it.

CATHY WURZER: Say, tell me more about Dred Scott, the man. I've studied his story, but I really don't know a lot about him.

BILL CONVERY: Well, sure. Dred Scott was an enslaved African American man who was born in Virginia in the early 1800s. And in the 1830s, he was sold to a US Army surgeon named John Emerson. And Emerson took Scott with him when he was assigned to a fort in Illinois. And after three years there was reassigned to Fort Snelling in what was then Wisconsin territory but is today Minnesota.

CATHY WURZER: Ah. What do we know about Dred Scott's life at the Fort?

BILL CONVERY: Yeah. Well, Dred Scott was of course enslaved to an army officer. There were a number of enslaved people at Fort Snelling who served army officers. The United States government actually gave army officers a stipend. They reimbursed them for expenses and wages for their servants and enslaved people. Of course, slaves didn't receive wages, so the officers pocketed that difference. Scott was a butler and a gardener, and he also assisted Dr. Emerson in his medical procedures, among other things helping vaccinate Dakota people against diseases like measles and smallpox.

CATHY WURZER: So he did an awful lot.

BILL CONVERY: Yeah.

CATHY WURZER: So what happened to Dr. Emerson?

BILL CONVERY: Well, Dr. Emerson eventually moved to St. Louis with Dred Scott and his wife Harriet. Dred was married to an enslaved woman named Harriet Robinson at the Fort. And together, they moved with John Emerson to St. Louis. And Emerson eventually died. And when that happened, the Scotts sued in the Missouri courts for their freedom based on the argument that they had lived in Illinois and in Minnesota, both of which were considered free soil. And the argument was is since they had lived in free soil, they should be declared free.

CATHY WURZER: Were there other slaves suing for their freedom in Missouri courts, too?

BILL CONVERY: Yeah. In fact, there was a long precedent going back to 1800, there had been something like 280 lawsuits filed by enslaved people who had lived in free soil to argue for their freedom. And about 40% of those had been found in the slaves' favor. So there was precedent. This wasn't considered a big deal in Minnesota in 1846 when the Scotts first filed their lawsuit.

But politics changed through the 1840s and 1850s. And by the time this case reached the United States Supreme Court, there was a very different political climate. It was really a big deal to consider avenues for freedom for enslaved people.

CATHY WURZER: But why didn't Scott's case end up at the Supreme Court?

BILL CONVERY: Yeah. So the Scotts filed their lawsuit in the Missouri state courts in 1846. And they went through several appeals. At one point, the Missouri State Supreme Court declared them free, but then they were returned to slavery. In the early 1850s, they moved the case into the federal courts. And after losing a decision at the federal court level, the Scotts appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1856.

And the Supreme Court heard the arguments in the case. The argument that the Scotts had lived on free soil and therefore should be considered free. They were arguing on the grounds of citizenship and comedy, which is, did the state of Missouri-- was it obligated to follow the laws of the state of Illinois? And also on the issue of Congress's power to regulate slavery in the territories under the Missouri Compromise.

CATHY WURZER: The decision that came down in Dred Scott's case has been called the worst in Supreme Court history. That's saying a lot.

BILL CONVERY: Very often.

CATHY WURZER: What was that?

BILL CONVERY: Well, when the decision finally came out in 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the opinion of the court. And it was, to say the least, inflammatory. Taney had hoped to resolve the national debate over the future of slavery once and for all by taking away Congress's power to regulate slavery in the territories. And in so doing, he wrote a really controversial decision that, among other things, declared that no African American person, free or slave, and this is a quote from Taney, had rights that a white man is bound to respect.

Basically saying that no Black person had the rights of citizenship in the United States, whether they were free or slave. And this was very much a decision grounded in racism and in an attempt to protect the institution of slavery in the South.

CATHY WURZER: Say, whatever happened to Dred and Harriet Scott after this?

BILL CONVERY: Yeah. Well, the US Supreme Court in Dred Scott v Sanford declared the Scotts enslaved. And that was a devastating blow to the family. Because remember, at the bottom of this, of all of this hostility and bitter arguments over states' rights and slavery and politics was a family that was simply trying to survive a cruel institution that held absolute power over their lives.

Fortunately for the Scotts, they were sold to the family who had originally owned Dred Scott. And by that point, the Blow family in Saint Louis were abolitionists. And they freed Dred and Harriet Scott and their two daughters. Unfortunately, Dred Scott died within a year of tuberculosis. Although his wife and two daughters lived on in St. Louis for many years afterwards.

CATHY WURZER: By the way, and how is the Dred Scott story told at Fort Snelling if someone visits?

BILL CONVERY: Yeah, that's a great question. I would argue that the Dred Scott story is perhaps-- is arguably the most important story that we tell at Fort Snelling because of its relationship to the issue of slavery and citizenship rights. And of course, it was a stepping stone towards the American Civil War. And if you go to Fort Snelling today, you can actually visit a room which is set up to talk about the Scotts. It was possibly where they actually lived in the Fort. A small room underneath the doctor's quarters at the Fort.

And this is a place where you can learn about slavery at Fort Snelling, about the many stories of enslaved individuals who lived at the Fort over time. But particularly about the lives of Dred and Harriet Scott. Their day-to-day lives, their relationship with each other and their family. And then of course, this very important national story of their attempt to seek freedom through the lawsuits in the Missouri and the national courts.

CATHY WURZER: It was quite a story. Quite a chapter of history. Thank you, Dr. Bill Convery. Nice talking to you.

BILL CONVERY: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Bill Convery is the director of research at the Minnesota Historical Society. By the way, the museum is planning a Dred and Harriet Scott exhibit to open next spring at the Fort.

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