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Tue, 09.05.1820

Harriet Robinson Scott, Abolitionist born

Harriet Robinson Scott

*The birth of Harriet Robinson Scott is celebrated on this date in c. 1820. She was a Black domestic who fought for her freedom alongside her husband, Dred Scott.

Born into slavery, Harriet Robinson was brought from Pennsylvania to the Northwest Territory by Indian agent and slaveholder Lawrence Taliaferro in 1835. Around 1836, she married Dred Scott, an enslaved man sold to military surgeon Dr. John Emerson. In 1838, she gave birth to their first child while traveling north on the Mississippi River back to Fort Snelling in present-day Minnesota. The Scotts moved to St. Louis, Missouri, with Emerson's family in 1840. Sometime during 1846, Dred Scott offered Irene Emerson $300 in exchange for his family's freedom and was refused.

Lea VanderVelde, the author of Mrs. Dred Scott, suggested that Irene Emerson's refusal to free the Scott family and the effort she put into defending her claim in the subsequent trial may have hinged on several calculations. Scott, approaching his mid-fifties, suffering from tuberculosis, and unable to work as much, would no longer have been considered a particular asset. However, Missouri law financially penalized slave owners who freed old, infirm, or very young slaves to fend for themselves. Emerson may have feared paying these penalties. Robinson Scott, much younger and healthier than her husband, and her two daughters, were considered valuable property. Emerson may have felt that the $300 payment was not enough.

Around the lawsuit, Emerson had primarily left the Scotts to fend for themselves. Scott marshaled some support from his former owners, the Blow family, while Robinson Scott became associated with a local church. Emerson's lack of oversight during this time became an issue during the lawsuit when the Scotts had difficulty proving that Emerson was, in fact, their owner. Robinson Scott's membership at the Second African Baptist Church in St Louis connected to Scott's first lawyer, Francis Murdoch, a fellow church member. Murdoch had lived in Bedford, Pennsylvania, around the same time as Robinson Scott's previous owner, Taliaferro, and frequented the same circles.

He was familiar with Pennsylvania law. Legal scholars Lea VanderVelde and Sandhya Subramanian suggest that the timing and impetus for the initial case may have hinged on Robinson Scott's origination in Pennsylvania and age at the time, 28 years old. Pennsylvania law (An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery), which Murdoch would have been familiar with, would free enslaved people at 28. Another motivation for the lawsuit's timing may have been the death of John Emerson and the fear that, as their Scott daughters grew older, Irene Emerson would sell some or all of the family and split them apart.


Dred Scott and Harriet Robinson Scott separately filed suits for freedom in 1846.  Harriet Scott v. Irene Emerson was billeted as the second cause for the November court proceedings in St Louis, Missouri, behind her husband's case, Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson. Due to illiteracy, the couple relied on their lawyer, Francis Murdoch, and the minister of the African Baptist church they attended, John R. Anderson, when they filed the petition. The case hinged partly on the Missouri court's "once free, always free" doctrine in some prior instances in which enslaved people had successfully sued for freedom. These legal precedents supported the idea that enslaved people brought to a free state, mainly if they lived there for some time, could not be re-enslaved. 

Harriet Scott v. Irene Emerson

According to Robinson Scott's great-great-granddaughter, Lynne Jackson, filing a separate suit from her husband was important.  "She did that because, as a woman and as the mother, if for any reason Dred did not win his case, but she did, then their daughters would be free. There was a little strategy there. And it was courageous." Sanford appeared to have strong opinions about the Scott family. He called them "worthless and insolent." He physically attacked Robinson Scott and her two daughters in 1853, at one point imprisoning them in a barn. After the death of Dr. Emerson in 1843, his widow Irene left the Scotts under the partial control of her brother-in-law, Captain Henry Bainbridge. Shortly before the Scotts ' first lawsuits, she hired Samuel Russell in March 1846.

In 1846, Harriet initiated her lawsuit, Harriet Scott v. Irene Emerson, suing for freedom simultaneously with her husband. In 1850, the Scotts' lawyers decided to advance only Dred's case with the understanding that the outcome of his case would apply to Harriet's suit. However, Emerson appealed their case, and the court combined the two petitions, creating Dred Scott vs. Irene Emerson to decide the whole family's fate. In 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision, re-enslaving the Scotts. In 1853, the Scotts appealed the case. Emerson transferred responsibility for the Scotts to her brother, John Sanford (incorrectly spelled Sandford on some court documents); hence the final case was Dred Scott v. Sandford.

Although they failed to win their freedom through the courts, the Scotts were finally emancipated in 1857 after their high-profile loss caused public embarrassment to Massachusetts Congressman Calvin C. Chaffee. Dred Scott died in 1858, but Harriet survived the American Civil War and lived out her days in the company of their two daughters and grandchildren, who had been born free.

Harriet Robinson Scott died on June 17, 1876. Harriet Scott was buried in an unmarked grave in the Black-only Greenwood Cemetery in Saint Louis. Her grave remained forgotten until it was re-discovered in 2006 by Etta Daniels of the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association. In the early 2000s, efforts were made to reclaim the lost graves. Volunteers raised funds to place a marker and memorialize Harriet Scott's final resting place.

The Scotts' two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie, lived as free black women. Older daughter Eliza married Wilson Madison; she had seven children, and only two sons survived adulthood. Lizzie did not marry and lived an obscure existence for much of her adult life. She took on an assumed name, Lizzie Marshall. She lived to be nearly 100 years old, dying in 1945. She worked as a boarding house cleaner and helped care for her nephews. Robinson Scott has living descendants who remain in Missouri.

Lynne Jackson, a great-great-granddaughter of the Scotts, founded the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation to promote the historical legacy of the Scotts and encourage racial reconciliation. In recent years, descendants of Robinson Scott met with those of Judge Roger Taney to receive a public apology, which was accepted. The combined group has worked together to determine what should happen to the memorial statues of Taney.

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The sale began-young girls were there, Defenseless in their wretchedness, Whose stifled sobs of deep despair Revealed their anguish and distress. And Mothers stood with streaming eyes, And saw their dearest children... THE SLAVE AUCTION by Frances E. W. Harper.
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