This is just so, so, so delicious.
Look at this photo. It’s a shot of the crowd gathered in St. Louis on October 19 to see and hear Barack Obama — about 100,000 people. Study the buildings in the photo.
See the building with the green dome? Recognize it?
If you look in the distance there, you can see a building with a greenish-copper dome. That’s the Old St. Louis Courthouse. For years and years, slaves were auctioned on the steps of that courthouse.
The Old Courthouse used to be called the St. Louis State and Federal Courthouse.
Back in 1850, two escaped slaves named Dred and Harriett Scott had their petition for freedom overturned in a case there. Montgomery Blair took the case to the US Supreme Court on Scott’s behalf and had Chief Justice Roger Taney throw it out because, as he wrote, the Scotts were ‘beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.’
Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
What is rather uplifting is that, 158 years later, the man who will most likely be the first black US President was able to stand outside this very same courthouse and gather that crowd. Today, America looked back on one of the darkest moments in its history, and resoundingly told Judge Taney to go to hell.
That case is the first one I thought of when Sarah Palin got caught by Katie Couric unable to explain Supreme Court decisions with which she might have disagreed. In re Dred Scott is right at the top of my list, and generally on the tip of my tongue. We fought a great and bloody war to overturn that decision, amended the Constitution, bore another 100 years of atrocities, then passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all to blot out the dreadful decision those conservative, activist judges wrought on the nation.
Kaeton posted the photo and comments last Saturday, before Freedom Tuesday when we voted as nation to clean up even more of the mess of the Dred Scott case.
History teachers: I’ll wager that’s a photo you can get cheap, to blow up to poster size for your classrooms. You ought to do it. Students should not only understand history, they ought also be able to take delight in watching it unfold, especially when justice comes out of the unfolding.
Found the photo and post, with a tip of the old scrub brush to Blue Oregon, while looking at the astounding number of literary and history allusions in Obama’s unique victory speech, in which he talked about Americans trying to “bend the arc of history.” I knew I’d heard that line before. It’s from Martin Luther King, who saidm “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” (Where did he say that? When?)
Those allusions, and the speech, may be a topic for another post.
- Discover Black Heritage, A Travel Guide
- The Old St. Louis Courthouse was also the site of the trial of suffragist Virginia Louisa Minor – she was seeking the right to vote
- Story of Virginia Minor, with links to the final decision in the case
- This site is also on the old U.S. Route 66
- Photos of the courthouse in 1844, here
- 2007 commemoration of the decision
- 1860 cartoon of the effect of the decision on the presidential campaigns, “Political Quadrille, Music by Dred Scott,” at Abraham Lincoln’s Classroom
- Lesson plan: Webquest for the Dred Scott case
- Findagrave notes Dred Scott’s final resting place near St. Louis
- Dred Scott’s fight for freedom (PBS – Part of African Americans series)
- Images of original documents in the case, from Washington University in St. Louis (DBQ sources)
- The decision in Dred Scott vs. Sandford
- Photo gallery of the day in St. Louis from USA Today‘s photographer Jack Gruber; one photo is close to the photo above