History preserved at Old St. Louis Courthouse

Old St. Louis Courthouse

Did you know one of the most important and infamous cases in United States history was tried in St. Louis?

In 1857 at the Old St. Louis Courthouse the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that African Americans, whether slave or free, could not be American citizens and had no standing to sue in federal court. The decision also gave the federal government to regulate slavery.

The case began 10 years earlier. Dred Scott, about 50 years old at the time, had moved to St. Louis with the Blow family, who were slave owners from Virginia. He was later purchased by military surgeon Dr. John Emerson, who was stationed at Jefferson Barracks. During this time, Scott married another slave by the name of Harriet Robinson. During a short stay in Louisiana, Emerson married Irene Sanford before returning to St. Louis in 1942. John Emerson died the following year.

On April 6, 1846, Dred Scott and his wife filed suit against Irene Emerson to try to gain their freedom. Because Scott had followed John Emerson to posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory where slavery had been prohibited under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Scott had lived in free territories for nearly nine years. It is unknown why he waited so long to file the suit.

Eleven years of frustrating litigation followed for Scott, which included a dismissed suit in 1847 and a reversed decision in 1852. Finally, in 1854, at the Old St. Louis Courthouse, a jury ruled in a 7-2 decision that Scott must remain a slave.

At the time, the case was considered an issue of property rights. Did slaves have the right to freedom if they were taken from a slave to free state? Largely overlooked was that human beings were being held against their will and forced into slavery.

Although this is hardly a proud part of Missouri history, it’s a decision that should never be forgotten. Today, the Old Courthouse is still one of the city’s most notable architectural landmarks. Tours are offered and visitors can visit restored courtrooms to learn more about the judicial system of the 19th century.



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