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Descendants of people in Dred Scott case gather for Day of Reconciliation

By Eileen P. Duggan

Originally published in the West End Word Dec. 14, 2016

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John LeBourgeois (from left), Pastor Sylvester Turner, Charlie Taney, Lynne Jackson, Shannon Lanier, Ashton LeBourgeois and Bertram Hayes Davis at the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation reconciliation event at the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac on Dec. 3.    *Photo by Diana Linsley

The Dred Scott slavery legal case resulted in much division and drama — including the Civil War — but a local foundation has been working for a decade to heal the animosities between the people affected by this and other historical divisions.

The Dred Scott Heritage Foundation held its first Reconciliation Conference Dec. 3 at the Frontenac Hilton, bringing together descendants of Dred and Harriet Scott, their former owners, the Supreme Court Justice involved in the case and even descendants of President Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Davis.

“For more than a decade we have had the concept to meet and find common ground with other descendants of history makers, especially those surrounding the Dred Scott Decision,” said Lynne Jackson, who founded the organization in 2007 with her husband, Brian. “We are grateful that descendants of some of the history makers and many others have come together as the Dred Scott Sons and Daughters of Reconciliation.”

Dred Scott Case

Many St. Louisans know that Missouri slave Dred Scott sought his freedom at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis and that the case was one of the factors that led to the American Civil War, 1861–1865, and eventually, the end of slavery. But the story is more complicated.

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Dred Scott

Dred Scott was owned for many years by the Peter Blow family, who landed in St. Louis in 1830 after falling on hard times and moving around the South for several years. The next year, the family had to sell its last valuable asset, Scott, who had helped raise several of the Blow children.

After traveling to several free states with his new owner, military surgeon John Emerson, Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom in Missouri in 1846. They lost the case, but won on appeal in 1850, then lost in the Missouri Supreme Court.

Then Scott filed a new case against the brother of Emerson’s widow, John Sanford, who may or may not have been acting officially as executor of the estate of John Emerson, who had died in 1843. Scott lost that case in federal court and the U.S. Supreme Court. The final 7-2 verdict, read March 6, 1857 by Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney of Maryland, found that Dred Scott was not a U.S. citizen and had no standing to file suit and that the federal government couldn’t prohibit slavery.

The decision was greeted with outrage by abolitionists, including U.S. Congressman Calvin Chaffee, who was appalled to learn that his recently wedded wife, Emerson’s widow, Irene, was the owner of the two most famous slaves in the country. He insisted that she divest herself of the Scotts, which she did, for $1 each.

The new owner? Taylor Blow, the youngest son of the Blow family, who had helped the Scotts fund their appeals after a reversal of fortune when the oldest daughter married into a wealthy family. Taylor Blow immediately, on May 26, 1857, freed the Scotts and their two daughters, but Dred Scott had little more than a year to revel in his freedom before his death on Sept. 17, 1858.

Heritage Foundation

One Civil War, institutionalized segregation and many civil rights battles later, Lynne Jackson, great-great-granddaughter of Dred Scott, started the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation 150 years after the decision in hopes of bringing reconciliation and healing not only to the players in her own family history, but to all affected by racial divisions.

The Foundation kicked off its 10th anniversary with the all-day conference featuring Jackson and her cousins, Dred Madison and Barbara McGregory; John and Ashton LeBourgeois, descendants of the Blow family; and Charlie Taney, great-great nephew of Judge Taney. Also on hand were Bertram Hayes Davis, a descendant of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis; and Shannon Lanier, sixth-great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sallie Hemmings.

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Charlie Taney, great-great-nephew of Judge Taney. *Photo by Diana Linsley

The Dred Scott case had long weighed heavily on the descendants of the original owners and the judge. Charlie Taney (pronounced Tawney), had discussed the history with his daughter, actor Kate Taney Billingsley, he said. Earlier in 2016, she wrote and presented “A Man of His Time,” a one-act play depicting an imagined 21st-century meeting between a Dred Scott descendant and a Taney descendant.

For a post-show discussion at the Actor’s Studio production of the play in Manhattan, Billingsley asked her father to find a Scott descendant. A quick online search netted Lynne Jackson, who was pleased to attend the play and “let the healing begin.”

Judge Taney, who had grown up with slaves, “without a doubt was a racist,” said Charlie Taney, a retired advertising executive in Norwalk, Connecticut. Despite his personal prejudices, the judge did eventually come to believe that slavery was “a blot” on the country, the nephew said. Young Taney confessed to sliding down in his seat during history classes whenever his family name was mentioned in the context of the Civil War.

Although the Taney family takes pride in Judge Taney’s positive achievements, such as swearing in President Abraham Lincoln, the family also must recognize that their ancestor had a hand in the “single worst decision ever made in the U.S. Supreme Court,” Charlie Taney said. “You can’t hide from it.”

Meanwhile, John LeBourgeois and his nephew, Ashton LeBourgeois, had written and published in 2013 The Blows of Yesteryear: An American Saga, a book based on their research as descendants of the Blow family. They, too, encountered Jackson along the way and jumped at the chance for reconciliation.

Taney and the LeBourgeoises officially offered their apologies to the Scott descendants during the conference as part of the reconciliation process.

The Dred Scott Heritage Foundation has held smaller-scale reconciliation forums each April since 2010 at the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival in Marshfield.

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Sculpture of Dred and Harriet Scott by Harry Weber

As part of its mission, the foundation expands educational opportunities about the case’s impact on history by producing documentaries and multimedia presentations, creating K-12 lesson plans and offering scholarships for students of law, history, science and math. The foundation commissioned a sculpture of Dred and Harriet Scott, which now stands on the Old Courthouse grounds.

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