Before George Floyd—Dred Scott in Minnesota

Scott v. Sanford 1857: Dred Scott’s famous suit for freedom from slavery was based on his residency in the free territory now called Minnesota and in the free state of Illinois. Scott had lived at Fort Armstrong in the free state of Illinois with his master, Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson, from 1833-35.

By Susu Jeffrey  July 4, 2020

Between 1836-40 Dred Scott lived at Fort Snelling in what was then the Wisconsin Territory, a “free territory” where slavery was prohibited. Scott drank Coldwater Springs water which was the potable water source for Fort Snelling (1820-1920) and still flows today although at the reduced rate of 66,240 gallons per day.

The National Park Service is the current caretaker (since 2011) of this 10,000-year old spring. Local NPS Superintendent John Anfinson says “We begin history here in 1820.”

In 1805, U.S. Lt. Zebulon Pike led troops up the Mississippi to discover what was in the $15-million Louisiana Purchase of 530-million acres. Pike signed a “treaty” with a couple of Dakota leaders and the Americans disappeared until 1819.

In Minnesota pioneer days Coldwater Springs (Mni Owe Sni) water was trundled to the Fort in a continuous water wagon barrel brigade until 1880 when a military-industrial complex was built to pipe water directly into the Fort.

Scott v. Sanford 1857

Dred Scott’s famous suit for freedom from slavery was based on his residency in the free territory now called Minnesota and in the free state of Illinois. Scott had lived at Fort Armstrong in the free state of Illinois with his master, Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson, from 1833-35.

In 1857, on March 6th, Dred Scott was found to be “not a person.” This finding by the Supreme Court of the United States was ridiculed inside the country and abroad.

Like the “illegal aliens” of today, the extradited and disappeared, slaves had no legal standing. The Scott decision is considered to be one of the most consequential Supreme Court cases.

In the Dred Scott decision, Minnesota played a part in the cultural battle against slavery in the United States that divided families and was as much about finances as ethics.

Dred Scott, back in St. Louis, Missouri, sued for his freedom from slavery in 1846 in state court. After an 11-year court battle Scott, Harriet, his wife and the mother of their daughters, Eliza and Lizzie, lost their freedom case. The Supreme Court, in Scott v. Sandford (1857), found that blacks whether slave or free “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Scott was a slave, property, and was therefore not eligible to bring his case for freedom from slavery into the federal court system. Dred Scott was found to be “not a person,” and therefore had no personhood rights in the federal courts of the United States.

Now corporations are considered “persons” under the law.

Scott was born in Virginia, 1795, a slave child to the Blow family, named Sam. The family and slaves moved west settling in St. Louis, Missouri. He changed his name after his first wife was sold “down the river.” He was 19-years-old, ran away as Sam and returned as Dred Scott, caught and beaten by a gang of young thugs who returned slaves to their masters for reward money. Perhaps the Scott surname was his young bride’s family name.

Scott met and married his wife, Harriet Robinson, at Fort Snelling. Their wedding was performed by Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro. It was illegal for blacks to marry. Native American marriages were also unrecognized.

The Scott case was initiated in 1846, six-months after Dr. Emerson’s wife refused to permit Scott to purchase his emancipation. Scott lost a first trial on a technicality, won his freedom on retrial, and lost in the Missouri Supreme Court.

This was a contrary opinion because Missouri courts consistently ruled that slaves taken into free states were automatically free. The state decision reversed the common practice ruling that just because a slave was living in a “free” state did not mean they weren’t still property.

The case was maneuvered from state to federal court by anti-slavery interests looking for a definitive legal blow to the institution of slavery.

A Few Bad Apples

On January 1, 1853 in St. Louis, the Scott family’s deranged doctor-master ordered Dred, his wife Harriet and their two daughters into a barn where he forced the adults to strip and whipped them with a horse whip for “being worthless and insolent.” Sanford then spanked the girls Eliza, 13, and Lizzie, 7, and locked the family inside the barn.

n the 1850s slaves were quietly freed if outrageous abuse became public knowledge. This blindness allowed the institution of slavery to continue while rooting out “a few bad apples.” The Minneapolis Police Department has paid out about $9.5 (in public tax monies) since 2016 in civil rights and excessive force settlements. While the public has paid, police behavior has not changed.

A “few bad apples” among the Abu Ghraib guards were rooted out but prisoner terrorism continues—think U.S. state-side prisoner abuse, think “black sites” where non-persons are held indefinitely in non-sites. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and of Muslims in the current wars on terrorism, like reservation restrictions for Native Americans, illustrate the breath of racist mentality—America’s original sin.

According to Dr. Steven Miles, professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis, torturing people is also devastating to the bad apples. Their acts self-contaminate and leach into the national character.

The Dred Scott family lost their 11-year battle for freedom in the “most unpopular Supreme Court decision in the (then) 70-year history of the court.” Into the rising fire of abolitionist sentiment in Scott v. Sandford (1846-57), the high court declared Dred Scott to be ineligible to file a suit in federal court because he was black.

The Scott case re-legalized slavery four years before the Civil War, six years before the Emancipation Proclamation and denied personhood rights to a huge class of birthright citizens whose labor built Washington D.C., the wealth of the South and the basis of our international trade to this day.

Plessy v. Ferguson “Separate But Equal” 1896

The Plessy case, like Scott, was designed to challenge misjustice via the “just us” system. The Supreme Court rationalized racial segregation so long as the black and white public facilities were “equal.”

Homer Plessy, a New Orleans shoemaker who was one-eighth black, sat down in a whites-only railroad car on June 7, 1892, and was arrested for refusing to move to a colored car. He challenged Louisiana’s 1890 Separate Car Act that required “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.”

Local trial Judge John Ferguson found that the Separate Car Act did not violate the 13th and 14th Amendments (1865 and 1868) which abolished slavery throughout the U.S.A. and established citizenship rights to all former slaves. After a four-year journey to the Supreme Court, Plessy was decided 7-to-1 against Mr. Plessy.

The lone dissenter was Justice John H. Harlan, of Kentucky, former slave owner who fought on the Union side in the Civil War to preserve the Union but not, at that time, to prohibit slavery. The day after Plessy v. Ferguson was announced in 1896, The New York Times quoted Harlan’s dissent in a brief article stating “no power in the land had the right to regulate the enjoyment of civil rights upon the basis for race. It would be just as reasonable and proper for States to pass laws requiring separate cars to be furnished for Catholics and Protestants.”

The Plessy decision simply reinforced the institutional black-white mores of the time and laid the groundwork for Jim Crow laws.

Jim Crow was a trickster folk character, a satiric persona of the dumb white master popular among slaves. However Thomas D. Rice, a white minstrel performer, reversed the character into a blackface slave parody in the 1830s, which became a racist standard. Jim Crow laws were a system of local and state statutes to deprive blacks of electoral, educational and economic equality.

Legal racial discrimination throughout the nation was not overturned until six decades later in 1954 with Brown v. Board of (Topeka, Kansas) Education. Finally, 108-years after Dred Scott initiated his lawsuit, the high court ruled on paper that all Americans are created equal.

Brown v. Board of Education 1954.  Removing the Inherent Contradiction of Separate-but-Equal

Separate prima facie cannot be equal. Two distinct concepts cannot be one. Racism is a schizophrenic disease to hold in a nation that claims all of us are created equal. Fear is the driving force perpetuating “race” consciousness and fear is contagious.

The Brown case rocked Americans. It was a unanimous Supreme Court decision that forced citizens to acknowledge the harm “inherent” in condemning Indian, black and brown Americans to a lesser status. Racism remains unreconciled in our population although today some realize that “race” is a fabricated distinction. Like a virus, each generation of our population works to decrease the toxicity of the race fiction.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas was an amalgam of five examples of public school enrollment based on color. Of the cases that leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) considered from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Washington D.C. the Kansas school was the most obvious educational institution that was equally equipped compared with white schools.

Third grader Linda Brown at Monroe Elementary went to a well-kept school with good teachers and adequate books but it was further from her home than the local school just blocks away. The Warren Court under President Eisenhower found that the Equal Protection guaranteed  by the 14th Amendment was violated by causing the detrimental effect of inferiority among non-white children.

Monroe Elementary is now a National Historic Site staffed by National Park Service interpreters. During its centennial year the NPS bragged that national parks ere our country’s best idea. Nonsense. Universal public school is America’s best idea.

America’s Original Sin

After the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (1857) his first masters, the Blow family, purchased and freed the Scotts. Dred died a free man the following year of tuberculosis. Harriet survived into grandmother-hood until 1876.

Their elder daughter Eliza Scott married and had two sons. Lizzie never married but, following her sister’s early death, she helped raise her nephews. One of Eliza’s sons died young, but the other married and has descendants, some of whom still live in St. Louis.

Equality Not Vengeance

For a tough lesson on being black in 2020 go to https://youtu.be/sb9_qGOa9Go.

Afterword

If the Dred Scott story was overlooked in your school read MRS. DRED SCOTT by Lea VanderVelde. The first half of the book is a lively, detailed account of early Fort Snelling. VanderVelde’s exhaustive research includes the Scotts, Native Americans, homes of the period, food, Fort Snelling politics, the extreme weather, and a sense of pioneer Minnesota in a very readable book.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), published a two-volume novel about runaway slaves, Dred, in 1856 (two years before the Scott Supreme Court decision). One of the principal conspirators in Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Southampton County, Virginia (1831) was named Dred “a name not unusual among the slaves and generally given to those of great physical force.”

Dred Scott was small in stature, poor and in poor health but his legal legacy renders him a giant from Minnesota’s pioneer history. And162-years later the nation is still dealing with the unequal relations between black and white men.
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