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Lynne Jackson, the great-great-granddaughter of Dred and Harriet Scott and founder of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, stands in front of a life-size sculpture of Dred and Harriet Scott at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Dred Scott descendant preserves history

By Catherine Martin

Shown is a copy of a photograph of Dred Scott that was found in the historic courthouse in Thebes, Illinois. Scott was the slave whose legal fight for freedom became a landmark U.S. court ruling. (AP file photo)

Shown is a copy of a photograph of Dred Scott that was found in the historic courthouse in Thebes, Illinois. Scott was the slave whose legal fight for freedom became a landmark U.S. court ruling. (AP file photo)

As early as age 4, Lynne Jackson remembers understanding that her great-great-grandparents, Dred and Harriet Scott, were important.

She was at a re-enactment of the historic court case, in which the enslaved Scotts sued for their freedom, where her father played the role of Dred Scott. There were a lot of lights, a lot of people and a lot of excitement, she still recalls.

“That was enough for a 4-year-old. It was exciting and I understood something important was happening here,” she said.

Now, Jackson, the founder and president of the Dred Scott Foundation, gives talks across the country about her ancestors’ case that started in St. Louis and eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected the Scotts’ petition for freedom.

“This case is truly a critical piece of the history that brought us to the Civil War,” she said.

The case went on for 11 years and five court proceedings, ending when the Supreme Court not only ruled against the Scotts but told them “that they, and people of their ethnicity, weren’t considered citizens or even people” and were deemed “more or less property,” Jackson said.

That decision, and those in other similar cases, eliminated the possibility of slavery being overthrown through the legal process, she said “and put us to the point that slavery would have been the law of the land.”

‘You need to study this’

Jackson, who lives in the St. Louis area, gives talks for schools, universities, law firms and other organizations about details of the case she has uncovered in more than 20 years of research.

She has received numerous awards for her work, including the Medal of Honor from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It is the organization’s highest award.

Jackson first seriously started researching the history of the Dred Scott decision in 1995.

“I just felt like I should know more than the average person,” she said. “I think God was telling me, ‘You need to study this,’ and it made a lot of sense to me.”

It started as a project she worked on in her spare time. At the time, she had two young children, was working full time as a general services manager for the Bryan Cave law firm in St. Louis and was involved in a several other organizations.

Eventually, she compiled 15 large, three-ring binders of information about the history.

Her research looked deeper into the details of the case, including the attorneys and justices.

“We started knitting it together and getting a larger mosaic. Really, it just became addictive,” she said. “The more you find, the more you learn. It just got better and better.”

Jackson said she uncovered many interesting facts along the way. She learned that Dred Scott may have traveled as many 5,000 miles, “which for a slave was pretty many miles,” she said.  She also found that Irene Emerson, whom the Scotts had sued for their freedom, later married an abolitionist.

Jackson said she tailors every talk she does to the audience, speaking more about the Scotts’ children when she is at schools, and focusing on Harriet Scott, who filed her own petition that eventually was combined with Dred Scott’s suit, when she talks to women’s groups. For law firms, she said she likes to focus on the “behind the scenes details” about the court proceedings they would find interesting.

Keith Price, one of the co-chairs of the diversity committee at the Sandberg Phoenix & von Gontard law firm in St. Louis, where Jackson recently spoke, said from a lawyer’s perspective it was interesting to hear the personal details of a case he studied extensively in law school directly from a descendant.

“So many times we just study the law without stopping to think about the person who was involved,” he said.  “It made a very strong impression that I realized I was listening to a direct lineal descendant of Dred Scott.”

Commemoration and reconciliation

In addition to education, the Dred Scott Foundation also focuses on commemoration and reconciliation.

In December, the group held a Dred Scott Reconciliation Conference in St. Louis that focused on sharing the history of descendants of other people’s ancestors who were integral in the history of Dred Scott. Attendees included descendants of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Davis, Justice Roger B. Taney, who wrote the opinion, and Peter Blow, Dred Scott’s original owner.

Jackson said she first met Taney’s great-great nephew, Charlie Taney, last April when he invited her to see a play in New York written by his daughter, Kate Taney Billingsley, about a fictional meeting of two members of each family over coffee.

“It was very powerful, very well done, very well received,” she said. “We were able to connect in a very meaningful and very wonderful way.”

The family is now helping the foundation, she said, and Charlie Taney plans to join Jackson in Annapolis, Maryland on March 6, the 160th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision.

Charlie Taney and Jackson plan to meet with legislators to discuss their opinions on a statue of Roger Taney in front of the state capitol. Some people want the statue removed, Jackson explained, but the foundation does not.

“We don’t believe in expunging history,” she said. “We would prefer it be added to in some meaningful way that it would be an educational opportunity.”

Also in honor of the anniversary, the foundation is planning to officially kick off a letter-writing campaign calling for a Dred Scott commemorative stamp. The campaign has already started unofficially, and Jackson has gathered about 1,500 letters so far.

“We could use thousands,” she said.

The foundation ran a successful campaign to preserve the Scott legacy when the group raised money for a statue of Dred and Harriet Scott in St. Louis. The statue was installed in 2012 in front of the Old Courthouse, where the original case was heard.

“It was incredible,” Jackson said. “A lot of people told me later that they were in tears.”

Price said he thinks it’s important for people to continue to learn about the case.

“We can’t forget how groups have been treated, because if we forget, it makes it possible for it to happen again,” he said.

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