Dred Scott was born in sometime around the turn of the century, often fixed at 1795, in Southampton County, Virginia. Legend has it that his name was Sam, but when his elder brother died, he adopted his name instead. His parents were slaves, but it is uncertain whether the Blow family owned them at his birth or thereafter. Peter Blow and his family relocated first to Huntsville, Alabama, and then to St. Louis Missouri. After Peter Blow’s death, in the early 1830s, Scott was sold to a U.S. Army doctor, John Emerson.
In 1836, Scott fell in love with a slave of another army doctor, 19-year-old Harriett Robinson, and her ownership was transferred over to Dr. Emerson when they were wed.
In the ensuing years, Dr. Emerson traveled to Illinois and the Wisconsin Territories, both of which prohibited slavery. When Emerson died in 1846, Scott tried to buy freedom for himself and his family from Emerson’s widow, but she refused.
Dred Scott made history by launching a legal battle to gain his freedom. That he had lived with Dr. Emerson in free territories become the basis for his case.
The process began in 1846: Scott lost in his initial suit in a local St. Louis district court, but he won in a second trial, only to have that decision overturned by the Missouri State Supreme Court. With support from local abolitionists, Scott filed another suit in federal court in 1854, against John Sanford, the widow Emerson’s brother and executor of his estate. When that case was decided in favor of Sanford, that Scott turned to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In December 1856, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech, foreshadowing the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, examining the constitutional implications of the Dred Scott Case.
On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford was issued, 11 long years after the initial suits. Seven of the nine judges agreed with the outcome delivered by Chief Justice Roger Taney, who announced that slaves were not citizens of the United States and therefore had no rights to sue in Federal courts: “… They had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
The decision also declared that the Missouri Compromise (which had allowed Scott to sample freedom in Illinois and Wisconsin) was unconstitutional, and that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery.
The Dred Scott decision sparked outrage in the northern states and glee in the south—the growing schism made civil war inevitable.
Too controversial to retain the Scotts as slaves after the trial, Mrs. Emerson remarried and returned Dred Scott and his family to the Blows who granted them their freedom in May 1857. That same month, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech discussing the Dred Scott decision on the anniversary of the American Abolition Society.
Eventually, the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution overrode this Supreme Court ruling.
Dred Scott and his family stayed in St. Louis after his emancipation, and he found work as a porter in a local hotel. But after only a little more than a year of true freedom, Scott died from tuberculosis on September 17, 1858.
Dred Scott is buried in the Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis (Harriet survived him by 18 years and is buried in Hillsdale, Missouri). Putting pennies (displaying the face of President Lincoln) on Scott’s headstone has become a local tradition over the decades. The commemorative marker next to the headstone reads: “In Memory Of A Simple Man Who Wanted To Be Free.”
In 1997, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet were admitted to the St. Louis Walk of Fame.