I’ve always been fascinated by the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, an 1857 Supreme Court decision. It makes me think about how betrayed Scott must have felt by the nation, how bold and clear the justices were in denying black humanity. But this moment, when the black sitting president has been forced to prove the place of his birth, has me thinking about Dred Scott once again. I think that America might be having a new Dred Scott moment.
Scott was one of thousands of the enslaved born in Virginia and moved West as their owners sought new fortunes in the American “frontier.” But white settlement required not only wars of displacement against Native Americans but also the violent removal of enslaved African Americans from their birth communities. Neither Native Americans, nor black slaves were conceived of as having claims to anyplace they could call home. The enslaved were auctioned off and sold, traveling in shackles to the newly expanding Deep South or the new Southwest, while the Indian Removal Act of 1830 opened the door for the violent forced removal and warfare against hundreds of thousands of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. This was the incubator of white citizenship in the nineteenth century, grounded in the idea of manifest destiny that imagined that white settlers were fulfilling God’s promise of a new nation. However this process of making space for new white citizens could only be fulfilled through the exploitation of slave labor and “Indian removal,” a moment that marked citizenship as white, and black and brown bodies as moveable and disposable.
As part of the movement west, Scott was taken out of Virginia and then subsequently purchased by a major in the Army, John Emerson, in 1832. Emerson’s army career was shaped by the process of “removal” and was facilitated by his status as a slave owner. Emerson was reassigned by the army to forts in the free state of Illinois and the free Wisconsin territory; he brought Scott with him. While in the North, Scott married, and started a family while continuing to work for Emerson. Called south to serve in the Seminole War 1840, Emerson called on Scott to return to the South with his wife and newborn daughter. When Emerson died, his widow Eliza Emerson attempted to lease Scott as a laborer and keep all of the income. Scott, who had lived in the free North for more than a decade demanded he be emancipated. After he sought to purchase his freedom and Eliza Emerson refused, Scott sued in court for his freedom.
In 1857 the Supreme Court found that although Scott had lived in the free North and had been allowed to legally marry (the enslaved were legally prohibited from marrying) he was not a free man. The court decision articulated broad grounds for attacking not only Scott’s claim but black Americans as a whole. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery from wealthy Maryland family who owned tobacco plantations and hundreds of the enslaved, wrote the majority decision which asserted that because Scott was black, he was not a citizen. In an unprecedented argument, Taney wrote that Scott had no right to sue. Black Americans had sued and petitioned for their freedom, the freedom of their children, and the rights of citizens since colonial times. Free blacks had even voted in a small number of states since the nation’s founding, meaning that free African Americans were part of “the people” who voted to ratify the constitution Taney was shredding to protect the slave regime. In his version of “original intent” Taney insisted that the framers of the Constitution believed that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.” In his dismissal of the idea that the Declaration of Independence might apply to black Americans when it insisted that “all men are created equal” Taney wrote “it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration… .”
The Dred Scott decision meant that to be black in America in the late 1850s was to live in a land that said you did not have a future. You were living in a country where, whether free or slave, you would never be a real American. The Dred Scott decision was devastating to black America. On what terms could they appeal to the Supreme Court when the history of black citizenship, and even the black presence in America had so thoroughly been washed away? How could the fight to end slavery and to win black rights be won in such a bleak context?
It is this despair of black America of the 1850s that reminds me of the disappointment of the past few days. The hardened historian in me wasn’t surprised, but I was struck by the sick theatre of a sitting president making special appeal to the state of Hawaii in the effort to prove not only that his election was legitimate, but that his citizenship is valid .I was struck by the tearful vlog response of Baratunde Thurston and by the rage of my friend Elon James White on his podcast Blacking It Up. I was struck by the profound disappointment of the Obama generation at the state of black citizenship. I was thinking about horror of the president having to show his papers, echoing with the millions of migrant workers, documented and undocumented who have to show papers everyday and are never pre-supposed citizens.
But I know that African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Latino, Asian Americans, we are formative of this American nation. I know that citizenship was only positively and affirmatively defined in the US Constitution for the first time when black people were freed and citizenship was granted in the 14th Amendment. I know that the labor of those black and brown people built the infrastructure and institutions of this nation. I know that our labor fed and still feeds the nation and cares for her children. We carry her mail, run her banks, and write her history. And I know that only through a coalition of black and brown and white folk did we achieve the amazing feat of electing the first African American president. I know that the 2008 election proves that those who would argue even today that “it is too clear for dispute, that the…African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration… .” are wrong. I know that we made them, through the simple practice of democracy, feel small, frightened, and vulnerable. But I want them to know, it’s okay, they are still welcome in our America. It has always been all of ours, all along.
Blair L. M. Kelley is associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. See her author page for more media links and info. Follow her on Twitter @profblmkelley.