1. Historically, Missouri has a deeply problematic place in the narrative of the struggle for racial justice in the U.S.: it was, after all, a slave state — one that beginning in 1825 forbade any “free negro or mulatto, other than a citizen of some one of the United States” to “come into or settle in this state under any pretext whatever.” Missouri repealed its runaway slave law in that same year, only to replace it with a new law that, beginning in the 1840s, included a reward system for the capture of formerly enslaved persons and punished anyone who abducted a slave or enticed her/him to freedom.
  2. Missouri was also the forcibly adopted home of Dred Scott. Mr. Scott, a Black American who was brought from Virginia and Alabama to Missouri as a slave, then worked in freedom for his enslaver in Illinois (a free state), and then was brought back to Missouri in slavery. When his enslaver died in 1843, it was discovered that the will included no provision for the passage of Scott to his widow — so Mr. Scott, his wife, and their two young daughters ought to have been free at this point. The widow considered them her property, however, and continued hiring them out to neighbors to make money for herself. In protest of this, Mr. Scott and his wife, Harriet Robinson, both secured the assistance of a lawyer and sued for their freedom in the Circuit Court of St. Louis in 1846.
  3. The 1846 suit was dismissed by a Kansas City court in 1847 on a technicality. The Scotts’ lawyer moved for a new trial, and the earnings that the Scotts made when they were hired out were placed in the sheriff’s “custody” until the legal challenge could be resolved: the Scott family collected no wages for the work they did. A St. Louis jury found for the Scotts in 1850, but their enslaver immediately appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court — and in 1852 the highest court in Missouri reversed the ruling, finding that Scott family was still a family enslaved. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where chief justice Roger B. Taney ruled on March 6, 1857 that because of their race the Scotts were not U.S. citizens, that they were not entitled to bring in Federal Court and had not been free even while living in free states, and that the U.S. Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery. The Scotts were to remain forever enslaved; the U.S. a nation of enslavers.
  4. For perspective: when Dred Scott and Harriet Robinson first sued for freedom he was about forty-six, she about thirty-one; at that time their first daughter was eight and their younger daughter three. At the time of Justice Taney’s ruling their case had been in local, state, and federal courts for over eleven years. Having worked their entire lives and never been paid a dime, they had challenged the legal system at all three levels. After the Supreme Court ruling, their fate seemed sealed and their defeat permanent — but:
  5. back in Missouri, where the Scotts’ legal pursuit of freedom began, the Scotts’ new enslaver died and ownership passed yet again — now to a couple in which the husband opposed slavery. More than a decade after they had first begun their legal battle, more legal proceedings ensued, and the Scotts were finally emancipated on May 26, 1857 in the building now commonly known as the Old Courthouse. (Their freedom, sadly, was essentially purchased, not won: their latest owner was allowed to keep all the wages they had earned — about $750, or $24,784 in today’s dollars.) They were interviewed, and engravings of them shown, in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newsletter the following day.



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John Michael Cooper

John Michael Cooper

A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.