When I knew I was headed to St. Louis, Missouri, to attend Netroots Nation this week, I wasn’t interested in seeing the Gateway Arch, a major tourist attraction. When I think of Missouri and St. Louis, the first thing that comes to mind—historically—is Dred Scott, and the worst U.S. Supreme Court decision in history, Scott v. Sandford.
Among constitutional scholars, Scott v. Sandford is widely considered the worst decision ever rendered by the Supreme Court. It has been cited in particular as the most egregious example in the court’s history of wrongly imposing a judicial solution on a political problem. A later chief justice, Charles Evans Hughes, famously characterized the decision as the court’s great “self-inflicted wound.”
I decided my first stop would be to head to the Old Courthouse, where ...
… in 1846 the slave Dred Scott sued for his and his wife's freedom as they had been held as slaves in free states. All of the trials, including a Missouri Supreme Court hearing, were held in the Old Courthouse. The case was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857.
I want to see the statue of Dred and Harriet Scott, installed in front of the courthouse in 2012.
My second thought was about visiting Ferguson Missouri, in St. Louis County, the city that drew national and international attention to the #Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, protesting the police killing of Michael Brown. I want to pay my respects to his memorial there, which is no longer a pile of candles, flowers and mementos in the middle of Canfield Drive. There is now a simple plaque and a dove on the sidewalk.
Dred Scott’s trial, and the Supreme Court decision on March 6, 1857, gave rise to pro-abolition protests and organizing against slave catchers and kidnappers. Modern-day protests against brutality by police are being held daily across the nation. We rarely acknowledge that modern police tactics are rooted in slavery times, a past of slave patrols and slave catchers. During Reconstruction, many of those patrols morphed into night-riding Klansmen, and urban police departments developed as a means to control and contain growing minority populations in our inner cities.
The week after the shooting of Mike Brown, in August of 2014, I wrote about St. Louis, and Missouri’s history as a slave state in “Show Me Missouri Racism”:
Missouri, former slave state
Missouri, though never considered to be a part of the Deep South, entered the union as a slave state as a result of the Missouri Compromise.
In an effort to preserve the balance of power in Congress between slave and free states, the Missouri Compromise was passed in 1820 admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. Furthermore, with the exception of Missouri, this law prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line. In 1854, the Missouri Compromise was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Three years later the Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories.
Missouri then became the center of a firestorm between pro-slavery and abolition forces as the site of the legal battles of Dred Scott—cases fought in the Missouri courts that would end in a racist decision by the U.S. Supreme Court—Dred Scott v. Sandford:
"in which the Court held that African Americans, whether slave or free, could not be American citizens and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court, and that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States."
St. Louis was home to the largest slave market in Missouri.
Though slavery is thought, by some, to be mild in Missouri, when compared with the cotton, sugar and rice growing states, yet no part of our slave-holding country is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants than St. Louis.
—William Wells Brown, former slave.
Missouri, though a state in which slavery flourished, was embraced by President Lincoln and was part of the Union—sort of:
Missouri had two governments during the Civil War, one Confederate (under Gov. Claiborne F. Jackson) and the other Union (Gov. Hamilton Gamble). The Constitutionally elected government was driven into exile by Federal forces. This government in exile (under Gov. Jackson) would join the Confederacy. Although the U.S. military occupied Missouri, the pro-Union government under Gov. Gamble was staunchly pro-slavery. For this reason, most Missouri slave owners were at least nominally pro-Union in sentiment. They formed a very strained alliance with anti-slavery citizens. Because of the loyalty of Missouri's slave owners, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not pertain to Missouri's slaves. Slaves in Missouri would remain slaves until 1865. But the State was inundated by slaves from the Confederate States that were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Sorting runaway Missouri slaves from emancipated slaves was a big problem for Federal officials in St. Louis.
Enforcement of these policies tended to vary depending on the general in charge of the Department of Missouri. For instance, Gen. Samuel Curtis, was fairly liberal with the issuance of "Certificates of Freedom" often simply based up "on the mere statements of slaves." Primarily due to protest by pro-slavery Unionists, President Lincoln removed Curtis from command and replaced him with slavery friendly Gen. John M. Schofield. (Curtis was in command from September 1862 to May 1863)
Dred and Harriet Scott’s tale is a tragic one. Though his case was part of the impetus that led to the Civil War and the freedom for millions of enslaved people, Scott died of tuberculosis only a year after he and Harriet were emancipated in 1857.
Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia in 1795. Little is known of his early years. In 1820, he was taken by his owner, Peter Blow, to Missouri, where he was later purchased by U.S. Army Surgeon Dr. John Emerson. After purchasing Scott, Emerson took him to Fort Armstrong, which was located in Illinois. Illinois, a free state, had been free as a territory under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and had prohibited slavery in its constitution in 1819 when it was admitted as a state. In 1836, Emerson moved with Scott from Illinois to Fort Snelling, which was located in the Wisconsin territory (in what would become the state of Minnesota). Slavery in the Wisconsin Territory (some of which, including the location of Fort Snelling, was a part of the Louisiana Purchase) was prohibited by the United States Congress under the Missouri Compromise. During his stay at Fort Snelling, Scott married Harriet Robinson, a slave who had been acquired by Emerson at the fort.
In 1837, the Army ordered Emerson to Jefferson Barracks Military Post, south of St. Louis, Missouri. Emerson left Scott and his wife at Fort Snelling, where he leased their services out for profit. By hiring Scott out in a free state, Emerson was effectively bringing the institution of slavery into a free state, which was a direct violation of the Missouri Compromise, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Wisconsin Enabling Act.
Before the end of the year, the Army reassigned Emerson to Fort Jesup in Louisiana. There Emerson married Eliza Irene Sanford in February 1838. Emerson sent for Scott and Harriet, who proceeded to Louisiana to serve their master and his wife. While en route to Louisiana, Scott's daughter Eliza was born on a steamboat underway along the Mississippi River between Iowa and Illinois. Because Eliza was born in free territory, she was technically born as a free person under both federal and state laws. Upon entering Louisiana, the Scotts could have sued for their freedom, but did not. Finkelman suggests that in all likelihood, the Scotts would have been granted their freedom by a Louisiana court, as it had respected laws of free states that slaveholders forfeited their right to slaves if they brought them in for extended periods in a free state. This was Louisiana state precedent for more than 20 years.
Toward the end of 1838, the Army reassigned Emerson to Fort Snelling. By 1840, Emerson's wife Eliza returned to St. Louis with their slaves Scott and Harriet, while Emerson served in the Seminole War. While in St. Louis, she hired them out. In 1842, Emerson left the Army. After he died in the Iowa Territory in 1843, his widow Eliza inherited his estate, including the Scotts. For three years after Emerson's death, she continued to lease out the Scotts as hired slaves. In 1846, Scott attempted to purchase his and his family's freedom, but Eliza Irene Emerson refused, prompting Scott to resort to legal recourse.
Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), was a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court held that African Americans, whether enslaved or free, could not be American citizens and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court and that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States. Dred Scott, an enslaved African American man who had been taken by his owners to free states and territories, attempted to sue for his freedom. In a 7–2 decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Court denied Scott's request. For only the second time in its history the Supreme Court ruled an Act of Congress to be unconstitutional.
Although Taney hoped that his ruling would settle the slavery question once and for all, the decision immediately spurred vehement dissent from anti-slavery elements in the North, especially Republicans. Most scholars today (as did many contemporary lawyers) consider the ruling regarding slavery in the territories to be dictum, not binding precedent. The decision would prove to be an indirect catalyst for the American Civil War. It was functionally superseded by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gave blacks full citizenship. As of 2007 it is widely regarded by scholars as the worst decision made by the United States Supreme Court
In May of 1857, Frederick Douglass spoke out in a mighty and militant voice against the decision:
The American people have been called upon, in a most striking manner, to abolish and put away forever the system of slavery. The subject has been pressed upon their attention in all earnestness and sincerity. The cries of the slave have gone forth to the world, and up to the throne of God. This decision, in my view, is a means of keeping the nation awake on the subject. It is another proof that God does not mean that we shall go to sleep, and forget that we are a slaveholding nation.
Step by step we have seen the slave power advancing; poisoning, corrupting, and perverting the institutions of the country; growing more and more haughty, imperious, and exacting. The white man’s liberty has been marked out for the same grave with the black man’s.
The ballot box is desecrated, God’s law set at nought, armed legislators stalk the halls of Congress, freedom of speech is beaten down in the Senate. The rivers and highways are infested by border ruffians, and white men are made to feel the iron heel of slavery. This ought to arouse us to kill off the hateful thing. They are solemn warnings to which the white people, as well as the black people, should take heed.
Were Douglass alive today, there is no doubt that he would be among the loudest voices decrying the legacy of slavery that still entraps those of us of a darker hue.
We call upon the American people—once again—to help set things right.
The legacy we inherited from enslavement times is readily apparent when we examine the inequities of the criminal justice system and the overwhelmingly oppressive presence of police forces that have made little progress in reforming themselves into respected community servants. Police departments in the U.S. are still too deeply snared in the roots of their genesis. Birthed from the cradle of controlling, patrolling, and catching slaves, they now corral, contain, and patrol free persons of color.
For the history of slave patrols, there is no better text than Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, by Sally E. Hadden:
Obscured from our view of slaves and masters in America is a critical third party: the state, with its coercive power. This book completes the grim picture of slavery by showing us the origins, the nature, and the extent of slave patrols in Virginia and the Carolinas from the late seventeenth century through the end of the Civil War. Here we see how the patrols, formed by county courts and state militias, were the closest enforcers of codes governing slaves throughout the South.
Mining a variety of sources, Sally Hadden presents the views of both patrollers and slaves as she depicts the patrols, composed of "respectable" members of society as well as poor whites, often mounted and armed with whips and guns, exerting a brutal and archaic brand of racial control inextricably linked to post-Civil War vigilantism and the Ku Klux Klan. City councils also used patrollers before the war, and police forces afterward, to impose their version of race relations across the South, making the entire region, not just plantations, an armed camp where slave workers were controlled through terror and brutality.
The Zinn Education Project, “Teaching a People’s History,” lists the film, “Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters,” which has used much of Hansen’s research, and the author is interviewed extensively as well.
Film. Produced by Judy Richardson, Northern Light Productions for History Channel. 2005. 100 min. Documentary on the many rebellions by enslaved people and other forms of resistance.
- Time Periods: 18th Century, 19th Century | Themes: Laws & Citizen Rights, Racism & Racial Identity, Slavery | Reading Levels: Adult, High School | Resource Types: Films
Our documentary tells true stories of slave catchers and escaping slaves that have never before been portrayed on film. And threaded throughout these unusual and little-known stories is information about the tools slave hunters used to bring back runaway slaves, the strategies used by the enslaved to thwart their pursuers… and the lengths to which both would go to achieve their goal.
We close on the aftermath of the Civil War, as the newly freed people work to build their communities, with farms, schools and churches. But the system of slave police has not disappeared—it is soon reborn in an even more violent form: the Ku Klux Klan. As historian Sally Hadden, author of the definitive book on slave patrols, explains, “The Klan is an extension of slave patrols in most direct, obvious ways… they’ve changed the names from patrols to Klan, they’ve put on sheets, but the activities and the purpose remain pretty much the same.”
Yet, while these stories acknowledge the brutality of slavery, they reveal something much deeper: that within the darkness, there was also light. For, even during the darkest days of slavery—even when freedom seemed no more than an illusive dream—the enslaved and their supporters continued to struggle against overwhelming odds…and sometimes won.
For a shorter read on the subject, check out Dr. Victor E. Kappeler’s A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing:
The birth and development of the American police can be traced to a multitude of historical, legal and political-economic conditions. The institution of slavery and the control of minorities, however, were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing. Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments, were both designed to control the behaviors of minorities. For example, New England settlers appointed Indian Constables to police Native Americans (National Constable Association, 1995), the St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city, and many southern police departments began as slave patrols. In 1704, the colony of Carolina developed the nation's first slave patrol. Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property.
Policing was not the only social institution enmeshed in slavery. Slavery was fully institutionalized in the American economic and legal order with laws being enacted at both the state and national divisions of government. Virginia, for example, enacted more than 130 slave statutes between 1689 and 1865. Slavery and the abuse of people of color, however, was not merely a southern affair as many have been taught to believe. Connecticut, New York and other colonies enacted laws to criminalize and control slaves. Congress also passed fugitive Slave Laws, laws allowing the detention and return of escaped slaves, in 1793 and 1850.
As Turner, Giacopassi and Vandiver (2006:186) remark, “the literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.”
Just as Dred Scott received no justice from the Supreme Court in his day, many of us question today’s justice—hence the chant of “No Justice, No Peace” is shouted loud across the land.
This tweet resonates :
There are more names that could be added to that roster, and the longer we go without substantive change, the longer this list will continue to grow.
As the shadows from the Old Courthouse in St. Louis move across the bronze faces of Dred and Harriet Scott, we can move forward to abolish the racism that tarnishes this nation.
We all can be abolitionists.