Feb. 10, 2009
Law professor VanderVelde's book brings life to Harriet Scott, Dred's wife
Considering the important role she played in American history, the slave woman Harriet Robinson Scott is remembered as little more than a ghost, forgotten to the point that for years nobody even knew where she was buried.
But University of Iowa law professor Lea VanderVelde thought the woman otherwise known as Mrs. Dred Scott deserved her own biography, and so spent more than a decade bringing her history back to life.
VanderVelde recounts that life in her new book, "Mrs. Dred Scott," just published by Oxford University Press. She will read from the book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25, at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City. The reading will be streamed live at http://writinguniversity.org.
VanderVelde said, "Mrs. Dred Scott" is in fact a family saga spanning two decades of life in the upper Mississippi valley territory at the time when the upper Midwest was America's western frontier. Vandervelde said Harriet was "a common woman of considerable gumption," committed to fairness and devoted to her family.
Those values would eventually lead her family to the United States Supreme Court, an infamous legal decision that denied African-Americans citizenship, and ultimately, the Civil War.
"My hope is to recover her life story for her contributions to the development of American civil rights and the American Constitution," said VanderVelde, whose expertise in constitutional and employment law has led to a longtime research interest in the country's slaveholding history. "In the same sense that the colonial era had Founding Fathers, Mrs. Dred Scott's engagement with the law made her a Founding Mother of this country.
"Her grievance of enslavement, her desire to give freedom to her daughters, as a legal issue, first split the nation," VanderVelde said. "That split lead to the secession and the Civil War and eventually to the constitutional reforms that expanded citizenship and freedom to so many more Americans."
Writing the book was a challenge for VanderVelde because Harriet's circumstances had been lost from view. She was illiterate and so left no writing herself, and as a black slave and servant woman in the mid-1800s, her life received little notice until the trial. VanderVelde said her absence from history could also be caused by how the public wanted to see her husband.
"Americans found it easier to imagine Dred as a single protagonist, a man in chains suing his plantation boss, than as an urban frontier domestic servant." said VanderVelde. "He served as an allegory for images like those in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and accordingly his wife and children were swept aside."
Harriet is mentioned only in a handful of government documents, court papers, military records and the like, and identified occasionally in the journals of her masters.
She spent most of her formative adolescent years at Ft. Snelling in what is now St. Paul, Minn., where she was the slave of the federal government's Indian agent. VanderVelde said the five years she was posted there -- from 1835 to 1840 -- was likely where she developed her inner strength, in order to survive the loneliness of a remote frontier outpost, and the brutal Minnesota winters.
VanderVelde also drew heavily on 250 freedom suits that were filed by slaves in the mid-19th century in St. Louis courts. To find the records, she had to search the dusty, cobwebbed courthouse storage rooms to dig out boxes of affidavits and testimonies that hadn't been opened in more than a century.
VanderVelde said Harriet was well known in mid-century St. Louis because of the legal fight and achieved a sort-of low-level celebrity at the time. In 1857, she appeared briefly in a story that was published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, a brief glimpse that shows a woman of steely resolve and a skilled negotiator.
A reporter and photographer from the magazine went to the family's house to interview and photograph Dred following the Supreme Court decision. But Harriet, acting as her aging and sick husband's protector, won't agree to the interview until she negotiates to have photographs taken of the entire family.
The next day, a photographer shot the only photos of Harriet and Dred known to exist, and their two daughters.
But VanderVelde loses the thread of Harriet's life during the chaos of the Civil War and Reconstruction. While we know Dred died in September 1858, Harriet all but disappears from history except for a few entries in city directories (where she's identified as "Scott, Harriet, widow of Dred"). She doesn't appear again until her death on June 17, 1876, just weeks from the centennial celebration of the country whose commitment to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" she worked so hard to make her own.
No one even knew where she was buried until just a few years ago, when VanderVelde and a team of scholars unearthed a burial record in St. Louis' Greenwood Cemetery.
VanderVelde's book also offers a stirring critique of the legal arguments and Chief Justice Roger Taney's notorious majority opinion that found blacks could not be citizens, whether they were free or slave. She concludes the opinion is Taney's tortured attempt to impose his own racial views on society, ignoring the lives of the litigants. In his view, she said, whites have all the rights, blacks have none, and American Indians are somewhere in between. Nowhere, though, does Taney acknowledge the existence of multiracial Americans, and the lives that the Scotts had lead.
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500
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