One of the most important stories in African Americans’ battles for civil rights is that of Dred and Harriet Scott, an enslaved couple who turned to the courts in the mid-19th century in their bid for freedom. As we honor Black History Month, we think it is fitting to remember the Scott’s brave struggle as well as the setting for several of their trials – the Old Courthouse.
Dred Scott was born into slavery in 1800 and worked for various families in Virginia, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. In 1936, he married Harriet Robinson, an enslaved woman; 10 years later, the couple was brought to St. Louis. By that time, the Scotts had lived in slave-free territories for nearly nine years. So they sued for their freedom, arguing that since they had been taken into “free” U.S. territories, they were automatically free citizens and should no longer be enslaved.
The case’s lower court trials were heard in 1847 and 1850 at the Old Courthouse (now part of Gateway Arch National Park. Their legal fight lasted many years and eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against Scott in 1957. The infamous ruling in Scott v. Sanford held that African Americans were not citizens and therefore weren’t protected by the U.S. Constitution, and also that the Missouri Compromise – which created the territories north and west of Missouri as free non-slave regions – was unconstitutional. Many scholars believe this controversial decision from the high court contributed to the start of the Civil War.
The Scotts and their two daughters eventually won their freedom in 1857, not through the courts but after their owners set them free. Sadly, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis in St. Louis the following year. His wife survived until 1876, long enough to see the end of the Civil War and the establishment of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. The National Park Service plans a new exhibit gallery devoted to Dred and Harriet Scott’s legacy when it reopens the Old Courthouse after its current renovations. Meanwhile you can view the short video A Bid for Freedom, which JNPA helped create for the park, which dramatizes the agonizing challenges facing the couple.