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May 26, 2015

May 26, 1857: Dred Scott emancipated

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) is often decried as the worst in history. In a 7-2 decision led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Court declared that slaves were not considered citizens under the constitution, and therefore had no standing to sue in court.

There’s a little known happy ending to this story: On this day in 1857, just three months after his loss at the Supreme Court, Dred Scott was given his freedom.

Scott had sued for his freedom under federal law, claiming that he was no longer burdened since his master was the resident of a free state (New York).

In the meantime, that master, John F.A. Sanford, went insane and was committed to an asylum, where he would die on May 6, 1857. (The extraneous ‘d’ in the suit’s name was due to a clerical error.)

Scott’s ownership reverted to his previous master, Dr. John Emerson. Scott had sued Emerson in Missouri court for his freedom, as Emerson had brought him to Wisconsin, a free state, for four years.

Dr. Emerson had died in 1850, and his widow had been remarried to an abolitionist. On May 26, Scott and his family were set free. Scott was a celebrated porter in St. Louis until his death from tuberculosis on September 17, 1858 – just 16 months later.

The decision would hasten the Civil War, contrary to the beliefs of the justices who supported it. The 14th Amendment clarified that persons of African descent are, in fact, citizens of the United States.

For more on Scott’s long road to emancipation, visit “Africans in America” at PBS.

Image: unknown, taken around the time of the Supreme Court case, via Wikimedia Commons

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