In 2013, I had the opportunity to travel to St. Louis. It wasn’t really all that long ago, but life was surely different. Back then, Nate and I were childless, and we only had one fur baby to worry about. So, when I learned I’d been chosen to receive a national award for public service, and that the recognition would take place out of town, it was a no-brainer to pack up and head out.
My husband and I had never been to St. Louis. We were excited to make a weekend of it, and I was elated to have been selected as an award recipient, not to mention completely shocked. I had no idea the Ohio Department of Insurance had nominated me for prosecuting several insurance fraud cases in Ohio. So off we went, and it turned out to be quite a memorable weekend.
I have to say, St. Louis is really a neat city. If you haven’t been, I strongly recommend it. There’s a lot to appreciate, something for all ages, and many free activities as well. Of course, receiving my award was a trip highlight. It still hangs on my wall today, but even more meaningful are the memories from that trip, a trip I’ll never forget.
I love history. My parents instilled in me the values of remembering and honoring our past so when I travel, it isn’t uncommon for me to visit a piece of history wherever I am. Needless to say, I was curious to see what St. Louis had to offer. Turns out, it’s the home of the original courthouse where Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom from enslavement. I had no idea this piece of history was in St. Louis until I read about it in our hotel. You could say I got a little excited, and as soon as the schedule permitted, my husband and I made a beeline to visit the notable site.
One thing I absolutely enjoy the most are old courthouses! I love learning the history, reflecting on the memories of justice, the symbolism of walking into court and fighting for your belief no matter what side you’re on. So much can happen in a courthouse. There’s really no place like it, and what I found in St. Louis was, well, simply awe-inspiring.
The original courthouse, known as the “Old Courthouse,” sits near the gateway arch of the city. Its architecture, size, and interior are majestic. Much of what you would imagine a courthouse from the 1800s to be, is still standing today. History tells us this courthouse had many significant meetings, debates, speeches, etc. but, in my opinion, none more important than the trial of Dred and Harriet Scott.
The Scotts were enslaved African Americans who, in 1846, sued for their freedom in this very “Old Courthouse.” The lawsuit went to trial, and today there is a courtroom preserved to resemble what it may have looked like when the Scotts were in court. As modern-day visitors, Nate and I were able to view that courtroom. You could feel the significance in the air; the weight of that historic legal battle. If you love courthouses like I do, you may even get goosebumps being in that space, thinking about Dred and Harriet’s fight for freedom.
The Scotts’ legal battle lasted 11 years. It even went to the United States Supreme Court, which at the time, had a controlling majority of justices who supported slavery. The court issued a despicable opinion, one that is surely is still an embarrassment to the institution today. It said (in short) that slaves were property and could not be citizens. Dred and Harriet Scott lost their legal battle for their freedom, but as history shows us, they won the war.
Maybe you’re wondering why I chose this somber topic to write about this month. As disheartening as that ruling was, February is Black History Month. It’s a time to learn about the past, and to learn from the past. It’s also a time set aside to honor and to remember the accomplishments of our Black and African American communities.
Like many of us, I am thankful for the Scotts, whose actions forever changed the trajectory of our nation’s future for the better. When the decision from the Supreme Court did not rule in favor of the Scotts, the abolitionists (think President Lincoln), hastened the pace to ultimately begin the Civil War and end slavery.
Personally, the battle of Dred and Harriet Scott in the Old Courthouse is often on my mind. I have a token from the Old Courthouse in my office (a simple postcard I put in a frame) to remind me of the important role we play as advocates in our justice system. As a prosecutor who often feels like she is fighting for the underdog (victims of crime), the Scotts are of special significance. Their trial, their determination, and their stamina demonstrate that the battle matters, even if the immediate outcome isn’t what we hoped for.
Ultimately, the Scotts secured their freedom in 1858, just before Dred Scott’s death. Harriet died a free woman in 1876. As a person and as a prosecutor, I am remain moved by the Scotts. True historical stories like theirs reinforce my drive to serve. It’s important to fight the fight, to be the voice of those who cannot find the words, and to help each other when we can.
To learn more about Dred and Harriet Scott, visit www.nps.gov and search for “The Dred Scott Case.”
Melissa A. Schiffel is Delaware County prosecutor.