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Lea VanderVelde
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LEA VANDERVELDE A faculty member works to ensure that Harriet Robinson Scott—otherwise known as Mrs. Dred Scott—is remembered for her contributions.

The Mr. and Mrs. Dred Scott Decision?

Law professor Lea VanderVelde said the United States Supreme Court’s most infamous ruling might have borne that name, because Harriet Scott was a co-litigant when Dred first filed the lawsuit seeking his freedom from slavery.

The little-known fact intrigued VanderVelde, because while Dred’s name lives on in history, few are aware that the case involved a family.

So VanderVelde set out to find more about this slave woman and her role as a litigant in the history changing case. After a search that lasted more than a decade, VanderVelde has pieced together what bits and pieces of information she found to reveal the life of a woman of deep resolve and inner strength, “a common woman of considerable gumption” who was possibly the energizing force behind her family’s drive for freedom.

VanderVelde’s new book, Mrs. Dred Scott, recovers a lost story of the litigants of the Dred Scott case and the nature of slavery in the American Midwest. A Wisconsin native, VanderVelde grew up thinking there were no slaves in the Midwest before the Civil War.

“It wasn’t until I read the Dred Scott case, which turns on the fact that the family lived for several years in what is now Minnesota, that I realized that the nation’s most notorious pro-slavery case arose out of the upper Mississippi valley,” she says.

“My hope in recovering this life story is to tie the infamous case to the development of American civil rights and the American Constitution,” says VanderVelde. “In the same sense that the colonial era had founding fathers, Mrs. Dred Scott’s engagement with the law appropriately casts her in the role of a founding mother of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution—the amendment that bans slavery.

“Her grievance of enslavement, her desire to give freedom to her daughters, as a legal issue, split the nation,” VanderVelde says. “That split led to the secession and the Civil War and eventually to the Constitutional amendment that expanded citizenship and freedom to so many more Americans.”

VanderVelde’s expertise in constitutional law and employment law has led to a longtime research interest in the country’s slaveholding history. Several years ago, she happened upon the court records of 250 slave freedom suits filed in St. Louis courts, a treasure trove of documents that had gone undiscovered and unexamined for years.

Digging them out meant searching dusty, cobwebbed rooms in the courthouse basement for boxes of documents that hadn’t been opened in more than a century. But as one of the first scholars to unearth the affidavits, testimonies and other papers, she says the effort has led to articles and symposia presentations, as well as Harriet Scott’s biography.

Despite those documents, writing the book was a challenge because Harriet Scott’s circumstances had been lost from view. She was illiterate and so left no writing herself, and as a black slave and servant woman in the mid-1800s, her life received little notice until the trial.

Several people advised VanderVelde that writing such a biography could not be done, and she admits the challenge motivated her.

“It seemed fundamentally unfair to think that a person’s life could not be noted because the person had never been allowed to learn to read and write,” she says. “Yet, this was the conventional wisdom of writing historical biography. Some people suggested that I turn to fiction, but I wanted to discover how much could be unearthed, and to leave a legacy of that search.”

Harriet Scott is mentioned only in a handful of government documents, court papers, and military records, and identified occasionally in the journals of her masters, but she can be placed at an important treaty in 1837.

The book starts during Scott’s formative teenage years in Minnesota. Her master, Lawrence Taliaferro, was the federal government’s Indian agent to the Sioux based at Ft. Snelling in what is now St. Paul, Minn. While she lived there—from 1835 to 1840—she met and married Dred, who was the slave of the post’s doctor.

While at Ft. Snelling, VanderVelde says Harriet Scott developed a quiet resolve and a deep well of inner strength to survive the five years of loneliness, isolation, and brutal Minnesota winters on the remote frontier outpost.

In addition, Taliaferro was a man of fairness and integrity who was committed to treating the Indians well. He also preached the value of hard work for self-sufficiency and freedom, messages that were likely absorbed by the slave, one of the few settlement persons around him.

Her life changed dramatically, though, after she and her family returned to St. Louis. There, she encountered a rigid race-based society that was much different from the relative freedom she enjoyed in wilderness Minnesota.

VanderVelde believes that Harriet Scott’s experiences at Ft. Snelling ultimately gave her the perseverance in the prolonged freedom suit. The case, Scott v. Sanford, lasted 11 years before it was resolved in 1857, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s most notorious decision that blacks could never be citizens of the United States.

The case so enraged many Americans that it was the subject of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and set the country headed into a crisis that would result in the Civil War four years later.

VanderVelde says Harriet Scott appeared briefly in a story that was published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, in 1857, a quick glimpse that shows a woman of presence and a skilled negotiator.

A reporter and photographer from the magazine went to the family’s house to interview and photograph Dred following the Supreme Court decision. But Harriet Scott, acting as her aging and sick husband’s protector, negotiated with them to have photographs taken of the entire family. The next day, a photographer shot the only family photos known to exist.

While Dred died in September 1858, Harriet Scott lived through the chaos of the Civil War and Reconstruction, seeing her grandchildren born into freedom. But except for a few entries in city directories, (where she’s often identified as “Scott, Harriet Scott, widow of Dred”), she vanished again until her death. Nobody even knew where she was buried until just a few years ago, when her plot was discovered at St. Louis’ Greenwood Cemetery. VanderVelde assisted in authenticating the gravesite.

Harriet Scott’s death, on June 17, 1876, came just a few weeks short of the centennial celebration of the country whose commitment to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” she worked so hard to give to her children.

Story by Tom Snee; photo by Kirk Murray.

March 2, 2009