MARCH 6, 1857

Dred Scott portrait
Portrait of Dred Scott Credit: North Wind Picture Archives, via Associated Press

In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld slavery in a 7-2 vote. Dred Scott and his family were enslaved, and when he tried to purchase their freedom, they were refused. He and his wife, Harriet, each filed separate lawsuits, calling for their freedom. They noted that they had lived for years in both free states and free territories. A jury ruled in favor of Scott and his family. But on appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that Black Americans, whether slave or free, had no right to sue. In a stinging dissent, Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis wrote that the claim Black Americans could not be citizens was baseless: 

“At the time of the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, all free native-born inhabitants of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina, though descended from African slaves, were not only citizens of those States, but such of them as had the other necessary qualifications possessed the franchise of electors, on equal terms with other citizens.” 

He noted that the Declaration of Independence didn’t say that “the Creator of all men had endowed the white race, exclusively with the great natural rights.” The decision drew wrath from many, including future President Abraham Lincoln, who called it “erroneous.” 

Two months later, Scott won his freedom when the sons of his first owner, Peter Blow, purchased his emancipation, setting off celebrations in the North. The decision helped lead to the Civil War, and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were adopted to counter the ruling. 

In 2017, on the 160th Anniversary of the Dred Scott decision, the great-great-grandnephew of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney apologized to Scott’s great-great-granddaughter and all Black Americans “for the terrible injustice of the Dred Scott decision.”

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.