This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 5, 2012 - One hundred and fifty-five years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Dred Scott case that denied citizenship to former slaves. Now two events are coming up in June that will give people a chance to reflect on the importance of the decision and look ahead at its continuing implications.
A new statue is being unveiled at the Old Courthouse at 3 p.m. June 8. And the St. Louis Beacon is hosting a discussion of the decision on June 27.
Dred and Harriet Scott spent 62 and 37 years, respectively, without the distinction of U.S. citizenship, though they tried to claim it. After living for nine years in parts of the country that prohibited slavery, the Scotts filed a petition for freedom. After an initial setback, the circuit court in St. Louis found in favor of the Scotts. Their owner appealed.
In a 10-year journey from the St. Louis Courthouse to the United States Supreme Court, their case was appealed several times. In 1857, the Supreme Court held that the Scotts’ case be dismissed on the grounds that African Americans were not considered citizens and therefore did not have the right to sue in a court of law, and that Congress had no right to pass laws regulating slavery in different territories because the right to property was guaranteed in the Constitution.
In the opinion of the court, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared the state of the nation as it was and had been for decades: that African American people “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.”
“The Supreme Court thought their decision would bring the country together, but it really had the opposite result,” says Bill Freivogel, who writes about the law for the Beacon, heads the journalism school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and is a former Post-Dispatch legal reporter.
A great-great-granddaughter's mission
Now, 155 years after the infamous Dred Scott Decision, a statue of the couple whose fight inspired Abraham Lincoln’s campaign, the Emancipation Proclamation, and three Amendments to the Bill of Rights, will be unveiled in the spot where their battle began: the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
The statue, by Harry Weber, is the first-ever sculpted tribute to the Scotts. The idea began about four years ago, when Lynne Jackson, a great-great-granddaughter of Dred and Harriet Scott and founder and president of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, decided St. Louis needed to officially recognize these heroes.
At that point, Weber was working on a statue of two other heroic St. Louisans, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, which was to stand in Mississippi River, near the foot of Washington Avenue in St. Louis. Having run into problems establishing a site on state property, Weber gave Jackson a call and offered to help her through this process.
Jackson had been working with a sculptor, but he had passed away. A year later, the Scott foundation held a competition to select another set of hands to bring Dred and Harriet to life. In a blind selection, Weber, the only St. Louis artist who had entered, was chosen.
“There are very few images of Dred Scott, so a lot of it was imagination and research into the case," says Weber of the seven-month long sculpting process; the "long and tedious" approval measures took an extra two months. Weber worked with Bob Moore, of the National Park Service, to dress the couple accurately, and his long-time artistic partner Vlad Zhitomirsky to cast the statue in wax and weld the bronze together.
Weber has experience with sculpting of this kind. He is the mind and hands behind the bronze Cardinals players outside Busch Stadium, and many other life-size castings. "Any historical process we do we have to get exactly right, because it's really like writing the history itself," Weber said. And this bit of history is especially important to commemorate accurately.
"It’s a very local story with regional and national repercussions, probably one of the most important in our nation’s history," Freivogel said. The Dred Scott decision remains one of the three worst in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, he said, a harsh blemish on the nation's r past. But the statue will convey a positive message to St. Louis and the nation.
The statue will serve as a reminder of the past, and a lesson for the future, Weber said. "We would have a lot less trouble as a nation and in the world if we studied and understood history."
Overcoming the stain
The decision and its aftermath show more about United States history than just its mistakes. "It is a reminder of the era of slavery that is such a stain on American history, but also a reminder of how our nation overcame that. It is an important symbol of our nation’s struggle to overcome the horrible history of slavery," Freivogel said.
In addition to recognizing mistakes and teaching solutions, Weber believes the image of the brave couple is a reminder of an outstanding act of heroism. "Harriet was probably the real hero," Weber said, "because she did not have to go to trial with Dred, but she did." Weber believes the most important purpose of the statue is to remind St. Louisans that "people can do and act in ways that far outstrip the expectation."
The life-sized bronze figures will be unveiled on June 8; the fundraising, led by the Scott foundation, continues, with $140,000 still needed as of early May.
On Wednesday, June 27 at 11 a.m., the Beacon Festival will host a panel on this decision at the Old Courthouse. Michael A. Wolff, who retired as a justice of the Missouri Supreme Court last August, will be joined by David Konig, history professor at Washington University and Dred Scott expert, and Lynne Jackson in a discussion of the history involved with the case, and the idea of affirmative action in our country today.
Freivogel, who will lead the discussion, hopes to introduce topics prevalent today as well, especially the upcoming Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin decision, which, according to Freivogel, could "potentially end the era of affirmative action."