Missouri’s Civil Rights Stories: Dred Scott’s Fight for Freedom

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Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis
Dred and Harriet Scott statue in front of the Old Courthouse.

Completed in 1826, the historic Old Courthouse in St. Louis has been the site of numerous state and federal cases and events.

The most famous case in the history of the courthouse began when Dred and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom from slavery in 1846. Initially, their case was not extraordinary for the time. Legal precedent had been established that an enslaved person who lived for a time in a free state would be free indefinitely. The Scotts’ owner was a military surgeon who had traveled throughout the country – including free states – with his slaves.

With the financial and legal support of Dred Scott’s former owners, the Blow family, the Scotts went to trial in 1847. The trial was dismissed on a technicality due to inadmissible testimony from a witness. A new trial was granted, but a court date wasn’t set until 1850. During that trial, the Scotts were granted their freedom.

However, the opposing attorneys appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court. They argued that although the Scotts spent time in free states, they were actually living on military land where their owner was required to reside. The case also raised the issue of whether or not the Missouri Compromise – which prohibited slavery in all territories north of the 36° 30′ parallel, with the exception of Missouri – applied to military jurisdictions.

The Missouri Supreme Court made a blatant political statement by ruling against the Scotts. But, before a final written opinion could be completed, new judges were elected and the case was tried again. The new case did not change the outcome for the Scotts, but it did bring into question the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise.

The decision that enslaved people resumed their enslaved status when they returned to a slave state after living in a free state – coupled with the idea that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery – sparked controversy nationwide.

The Scotts then appealed to the United States Circuit Court. Both sides of the argument wanted to determine, once and for all, if the standard of “once free, always free” stood. In 1854, the Circuit Court made its decision: Dred and Harriett Scott moved back to a state that practiced slavery, so the laws of the free states did not apply – the Scotts were enslaved once again.

With the attention of the nation focused on the proceedings, the case went on to the United States Supreme Court. It wasn’t until 1856 that a trial was held, but the high-profile nature of the events guaranteed it would not be forgotten. The Scotts’ attorney held with the original arguments: legal precedent dictates that the Scotts should be free citizens, and they have a right to sue for their freedom. The opposing side argued the legality of the Missouri Compromise. If it was deemed unconstitutional, Congress could not outlaw slavery in any state or territory, making it impossible for the Scotts to ever be considered free.

In 1857 the Court came to a decision: Dred and Harriet Scott were still enslaved, and because they were not citizens, they did not have the right to sue. The ruling also stated that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional – Congress did not have the power to forbid slavery.

The Scott family’s owners turned their ownership over to the Blow family in St. Louis, who then formally freed them. Although he died the following year, Dred Scott lived his final days a free man.

The impact of the contentious legal battle was enormous. At the time, the tensions surrounding slavery were running high across the country, and the outcome of the case fueled the outrage. The decision was meant to be a final say on the issue of slavery in the United States, but the unrest that erupted would not be settled, making the Civil War unavoidable.

Fewer than 20 years would pass before another controversial issue was debated in the Old Courthouse.

Virginia Minor, a women’s suffrage activist, brought suit in a civil action in 1873 against a registrar who would not allow her to vote. Minor had helped establish the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri, the first organization dedicated exclusively to securing the right to vote for women. The case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court where, ultimately, they ruled against Minor. However, her efforts played an important role in the women’s suffrage movement.

In the 1940s, yet another momentous case was brought to the Old Courthouse. J.D. Shelley moved his family to St. Louis where he hoped to escape the racial tensions they had experienced in the South. However, the Shelley family soon found themselves in the middle of intense discrimination when they purchased a home in a white-only neighborhood. Shelley entered a legal battle that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that all citizens, regardless of race, were granted equal protection under the law – including the right to purchase and sell property.

The Old Courthouse is part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.

The courthouse is currently undergoing major renovations that will include new and updated exhibits. The Northeast Gallery will be dedicated to telling the story of Dred and Harriet Scott’s legal battle and its relevance today. The Northwest Gallery will provide a look into the life of African Americans in St. Louis throughout the years. The Southeast Gallery will highlight the architecture of the structure and the individuals who built it. The Southwest Gallery will give visitors an opportunity to experience an 1850s courtroom and re-enact mock trials.

The project, which began in late 2021, is expected to last about two years. During renovations, the interior of the courthouse is closed to the public.