Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle. It is the pendulum and when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it will come back.
[music: mix with lyrics “back, back, it will come back”]
Jad Abumrad: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is More Perfect. A series about the cases that land in front of the Supreme Court and in this episode, which we might as well call Pendulum Part Two. We're going to take a deep dive into what might be the most horrible Supreme Court decision ever in an attempt 160 years after the fact in a Hilton hotel ballroom to finally set it right.
[music with lyrics “Hey, do you know about the U.S.A.? Do you know about the government? Can you tell me about the constitution?”]
Clip: This is a case that split the United States into—
[music with lyrics “We the people”]
Jad: The case in question is the Dred Scott case. Which if you ask people…
Interviewer: I was wondering if you've ever heard of the Dred Scott court case?
Soren Shade: The Dred Scott-- Sounds familiar.
Jad: Doesn't go well.
Soren: Nothing coming up?
Speaker 2: Man, I don't know my high school history teacher would be really mad at me right now. I don't know.
Speaker 3: I don't remember anything about it.
Soren: You remember nothing?
Jad: We get a lot of people who are like, was that like a civil rights thing?
Speaker 2: Probably something to do with segregation.
Julia Longoria: You're warm.
Speaker 2: I'm warm?
Jad: Or was it Obama?
Soren: Like the name has some familiarity, yes?
Speaker 3: Yes.
Speaker 4: Dredd, what does that mean?
Julia: Dred Scott. It's a name.
Speaker 4: I don't know, this is the first time I heard of him.
Elie Mystal: What happens a lot of times is that people don't actually understand why they're free. Dred Scott is one of those fundamental decisions that lays the groundwork for the reasons why we can live in a multicultural society.
Jad: This is Elie Mystal More Perfect's legal editor.
Elie: To really understand the case, you've got to go to a place called Fort Snelling. It's a small army base, about 15 minutes north of the Minneapolis airport.
Julia Longoria: Snow freshly laid on the ground.
Jad: And our producer Julia Longoria…
Elie: took a trip there.
Speaker 5: Over here
Jad: And this guy--
Richard Josey: I'm Richard Josey, manager of programs here at the Minnesota Historical Society.
Jad: Gave her a tour.
Julia: Yep, so what are we walking into now?
Richard: What you can really see right now is the space that we think you know, it's probably where Dred and Harriet Scott, you know, where they lived.
Jad: Before we go in, can you just sort of set up when in time are we? What's happening?
Julia: This is the 1830s.
Elie: We're 30 years out from the Civil War.
Julia: By the 1830s, about half the states in the union have slavery, about half don't So it's this question that's kind of still unanswered, like, should we be a free nation, or should we be a slave nation?
Elie: So there's a real tension here and there is a real understanding here that this might not work.
Julia: And just as we're about to reach this breaking point, army doctor named John Emerson--
Elie: A white guy.
Julia: Definitely a white guy, slave owner, steps into free territory and arrives here to this army base on a hill, and he brings with him his one slave, Dred Scott.
Richard: Now we're actually inside the fortress if you will, and all of the stone, all of the will windows, it's kind of like whenever I come here I have this kind of cold feeling, even when it's hot outside.
Julia: He walks us up to the back of this one squat building on the far end of the base.
Julia: Can you describe the room?
Richard: I think we're probably looking at a maybe seven-and-a-half-foot ceiling, wood grain floor, wood clapboard floor with stone walls.
Julia: It's a tiny room; little bigger than a king bed. There's a fireplace, little table, some Redwood cabinets.
Richard: This is the home. This is a kitchen, this is a laundry place. This is your one-stop-shop.
Julia: And the reason this room is so important is because Dred Scott living in this room, for the first time in his life, he got a taste of what it might be like to be free. Obviously, he was still a slave but Dr. Emerson would leave the fort for months at a time and have him work for other people. He had a degree of autonomy. Harriet and Dred met here, right?
Julia: When he was here, he met a girl.
Richard: 1836, seven, they met here.
Julia: Richard Josey likes to stand here and imagine just how that might have went down.
Richard: I can imagine Harriet having been here and Dred being over by the store and then having a conversation with one of the other Black guys that was here. I can imagine him saying, "Did you see the new girl that's here?" Then she comes walking by. "Jim, who is that? I'm going to make her mine." I can imagine him saying that.
Julia: Over the next few years, Dred and Harriet had two kids, both of them girls.
Richard: Personally, I think that that what happened was the children seemed to change everything.
Julia: What ends up happening is that Dr. Emerson moves Dred Scott and his family back to Missouri. They're back in a slave state. Dr. Emerson ends up passing away. It seems like his wife is going to maybe sell Dred Scott's daughters. What Dred and Harriet Scott end up deciding to do, the whole reason we know Dred Scott's name, is that they decided to sue for their own freedom.
Elie: That's a lawsuit that Dred Scott had every right to believe that he would win. There was a doctrine called, "Once free, always free." That the minute your foot landed in the snow of the north, the minute that you and your owner walked into free territory, you were free and you could not be returned to a state of bondage.
Julia: This was a well-known legal argument. In fact, Dred Scott won at a lower court. It goes all the way up to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court says, "No. You're still property." And the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney--
Elie: Very famously, he says, "The Black man has no rights that the white man is bound to respect." Taney, in a amazingly broad decision, not only slams the door on Dred Scott's freedom, he slams the door on the potential for any African-American, free or not free, to ever have full citizenship in this country.
Richard: At that point of time at the highest court of the land to make that decision, that was putting a period on this overarching battle between the north and the south, the for-slavery, and the abolitionist. When this happens, now you start seeing civil war popping on.
Jad: Now, as far as Dred Scott case is concerned, speaking legally, the 13th and 14th Amendments did come along and overturn it.
Julia: That line, "The Black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect," you can't overturn that line.
Jad: These days, as the pendulum swings and we see a rise in blatant, overt white nationalism,-
Newscaster: There's more than three dozen people injured.
Jad: -and violence over statues.
Newscaster: This car plowed into a crowd of people.
Jad: That line-
Crowd: Whose streets? Our streets!
Jad: -still hovers above us all. But suppose you're a direct descendant of that case, of that history. Suppose your name is Scott but your last name is Taney, what do you do with that? Particularly now, what do you do with that history? Do you ignore it? Is it not your problem, or do you address it? If you do, how? Coming up next after the break, we walk into a hotel lobby in St. Louis and get an answer we just did not expect.
Jad: More Perfect will continue in a moment. [music]
Jad: This is More Perfect. I'm Jad Abumrad. Now, we come to the reunion. As she was reporting the story producer, Julia Longoria, was doing a little googling and located a couple of Scott Taney descendants and then found out that they were actually planning to meet up to have this a historic summit, which we thought it was bananas. She went, and it was bananas. As soon as she came back, she sat down in the studio and told Elie Mystal and I all about it.
Julia: Where to start?
[background noise of reunion]
Julia: I locked into this Hilton Frontenac Hotel in St. Louis. Your classic hotel atrium with a very weird carpet pattern. I walked in and it's like-
Lynne: Hello, darling. How are you?
Julia: -It's almost like a conference.
Lynne Jackson: Oh, you. Julia.
Julia: I'm greeted by the great-great-granddaughter of Dred Scott.
Lynne: Yes. It's just amazing. Literally, this is our inaugural sons and daughters of reconciliation events.
Julia: Name's Lynne Jackson. She's the main organizer.
Lynne: This was always a dream that I had about 12 years ago that, "If I could meet other descendants, wouldn't that be cool?"
Julia: She immediately tells me-
Lynne: I'm a networker.
Julia: -I'm a networker. I'm going to connect you with everyone here. [laughter]
Lynne: That's what I like doing. This is the Blow family right here.
Julia: Immediately, she introduces me to these three people.
Lynne: What's your name?
Mimi: Mimi Lebourgeois.
John: John Lebourgeois..
Ashton: I'm Ashton Lebourgeois..
Julia: -who are descendants of the Blow family. The first family who owned her great-great-grandpa.
Lynne: Here's some more fun guests. Hello, guys. Come on in.
Julia: She also introduced me to the great-great-great-
Dred Scott Madison: I'm one of the great-great-
Shannon Lanier: Six great-grandson-
Dred Scott Madison: -of Thomas Jefferson.
Julia: -grandson of Thomas Jefferson. I met--
Julia: What's your name?
Bertram Hayes-Davis: I'm Bertram Hayes-Davis.
Julia: A descendant of Jefferson Davis. The guy who led the Confederacy against the Union in the Civil War. Everybody's hugging and laughing. It was wild.
Elie: It sounds almost like the meeting of the utopian society.
Julia: [laughs] Yes, exactly. And the whole idea, everyone wanted-
Charlie Taney: Reconciliation.
Bertram Hayes-Davis: Reconciliation.
Julia: -reconciliation. That was the word of the day. Reconciliation.
Shannon Lanier: Reconciliation. I think a lot of the country needs that now. I think a lot of the people here--
Julia: I'm wandering around and greeting these people, going up shaking hands with random people. Then I meet this one guy.
Lynne: Here's my cousin, Dred Scott Madison.
Julia: Lynn introduced us.
Dred Scott Madison: Yes. Dred Madison. I'm the great-great-grandson of Dred and Harriet Scott.
Julia: I look in his eyes. And I was like, "Holy shit. Those are Dred Scott's eyes." I mean there's really only one picture of Dred Scott that exists, and it's from around 1857. He's wearing a suit, staring straight at the camera. His eyes are almost glassy whose pupils are really big and it's just striking. I felt like I was looking right into those same eyes.
Julia: Have you always known that you're related to Dred Scott?
Julia: What's your relationship to that history? What do you think about it? What do you feel?
Dred: I have mixed feelings. Based on what Chief Justice Taney said, and the decision they made that you're subhuman species with no rights a white man is bound to respect.
Lynne: Blacks have no rights that white men are bound to respect?
Dred: That still resonates today in my opinion. What really hit me the hardest and it's hard for me to even think about this because it just bothers me, was Trayvon Martin.
Newscaster: Trayvon Martin, a teenager, was shot down by a white neighborhood watchman who now claims self-defense.
Dred: This kid was walking home from a store. Wasn’t bothering anyone, he wasn't breaking any laws. Someone decided to follow him, pull-up on him, and ended up murdering him. That guy parked his car, got out of his car, invaded this young man's space, and murdered him and used, The Stand Your Ground Law. That's a perfect example of, "Your ground is yours until I decide it's not."
Julia: I meet Dred just as he is about to shake hands for the first time with the family who owned his family.
Dred: The whole lot of stuff that goes through your mind. Are they going to be buttheads? Are they going to be arrogant, all of that? That all goes through your head, but you have to approach people for who they are. You got to have an open mind.
Julia: One of the most striking things I learned from Dred Scott Jr. Jr. Jr. and also from his sister Barbara.
Barbara McGregory: I'm Barbara McGregory. I'm Dred Scott's great-great-granddaughter.
Julia: Is that the Dred Scott history was actually something that was kind of kept from them.
Barbara: It was a hush, hush thing, because of the Dred Scott decision. I don't know if you are understanding what that was. That was the last straw that sparked the Civil War. My dad, when they were growing up, they had death threats. They couldn't tell anybody who they work related to.
Julia: Your dad, that generation-- This was like a hundred years after the decision. That generation had to keep it a secret?
Barbara: Yes, that's his great grandfather. His grandmother was Dred Scott's daughter.
Julia: Dred Jr. Jr. Jr. told me that his dad was actually partially raised by Dred Scott's daughter, whose name was Lizzie.
Dred: Aunt Lizzie tried to hide the fact. In fact, someone told me she might have been mad when my grandfather-- Grandmother named my father Dred Scott because she was in hiding. You've got to remember when she was six years old, they went in hiding for five years during the trial, her and her sister. The whole basis of the trial was he didn't want his family split up. When he lost the second appeal, he sent the girls into hiding because he didn't want them sold away. Lizzie stayed pretty much undercover. She lived in a little room, but she always had the shades closed.
Julia: Dred and Barbara told me their parents never talked about Dred Scott. They never had a picture up in the house. They never even knew what he looked like. In fact, as we were standing there in the lobby of the Hilton, Dred pulls out his phone.
Dred: Photos of Dred Scott.
Google Now: Okay, pictures of Dred Scott.
Julia: He brings up the photo on Google.
Barbara: That's the actual photograph.
Dred: That's the actual photograph.
Barbara: That's the actual photograph, which looks like-- Let's see.
Dred: It looks like this. That's it.
Julia: Can you describe it?
Dred: Really dark eyes. He's wearing a suit.
Julia: He was impressed, I think. He wouldn't expect a slave to be dressed so nice.
Jad: Wait, is that the first time he's seen the picture of Dred Scott?
Julia: No, it's not the first time, but it seemed like he was noticing things in it for the first time.
Dred: He looks really dignified and stern in that picture. He looks like a man who's gone through it and is ready to go through some more.
Julia: Yes. Okay, so at the end of the night, I end up at the hotel bar with another descendant.
Charlie: I'll let her answer that for you.
Kate: No, I think you should answer that.
Charlie: The Dred Scott case is a famous Supreme Court case. The Chief Justice who ruled in the case was Roger Brooke Taney, and so I'm a Taney.
Julia: Charlie Taney is the great, great-grandnephew of Roger Brooke Taney, who is the Chief Justice who basically denied Dred Scott his freedom. He's a tall guy, white hair, glasses on the tip of his nose.
Charlie: I'll take one more gin and tonic, okay,
Barbara: We had a leather bound, original copy of that decision
Julia: He was actually sitting next to three descendants from the family who originally owned Dred Scott. They were like, "Come join us." To my left is the descendant of the people who owned Dred Scott and to my right are the people who kept Dred Scott enslaved.
Charlie: Are you not going to eat one of those?
Ashton Lebourgeois: I'm not. Please have them.
Julia: They were all just having gin tonics and crab cakes.
Mimi: I was trying to remember that quote Bob has where he says, “The past is never dead, it's not even past.
Charlie: [laughs] It's great.
Julia: Can you describe the first images you saw of Taney? Eventually, I steered the conversation back to Charlie Toney's ancestor, Roger Taney, the Supreme Court Justice.
Charlie: Well, we had pictures of him hanging when I grew up in the house.
Kate: It was up on the wall and I remember it had this light over it.
Julia: Unlike the Dred Scott family, Charlie Taney and his daughter Kate.
Kate: Kate Taney Billingsley.
Julia: Grew up knowing exactly what Roger looks like.
Kate: His skin flapped over and he had these long jowls, but he was also a thin man.
Charlie: He was very sickly.
Kate: That's something I really recall. It spooked me.
Charlie: He looks like that shriveled up little old man who lives up in the house on the hill that hardly ever comes out of his house and all the kids are scared of. [laughs] When is the first time you study the Civil War, probably like fifth grade, sixth grade? You're sliding down on your seat when you get to the Dred Scott decision because this is really terrible and that's my family and I'm like, "God, they did that." You're very aware of it. While that's a black mark on our family, he also ran one of the most productive courts and it was during a time of explosive growth in the country. We're very proud of his role and helping form America. What he's known for is the single worst decision ever made by the Supreme Court. If you're a family member, it's a little difficult to have that be the only focus. [laughs]
Mimi: It's incomplete.
Julia: Sitting there, it was pretty clear that Charlie Taney was like Dred Scott Madison. He also had mixed feelings.
Charlie: Having read a number of his letters, I think he really loved his wife and his family, and that he was a very loving father and he was against slavery is pretty clear. He thought it was a blot in the national character.
Julia: He thought slavery was wrong? Are we talking about Taney still?
Charlie: Yes, he felt that was wrong and should eventually be just done away with.
Julia: He told me that in one of his legal arguments, Taney totally railed against slave drivers.
Charlie: He says something to the effect of, "These people are reptiles who deal in the trafficking of human flesh."
Julia: Sitting there, Charlie tells me that Roger Taney was trying to save the Union, that somehow if he ruled that America was a slavocracy once and for all, that might somehow delay the civil war.
Charlie: He was trying to solve the issue of slavery in America. That might be true but you can't overlook is when you read that language, that he was a stone racist, he just was.
Julia: And I asked them, "When you met the Scotts, what did you feel? Did you feel like you wanted to communicate something to them?" The Blow descendant, the family who originally owned Dred Scott, said, "Yes."
John Lebourgeois: Yea. Like we're sorry.
Julia: I turned to Taney and I said like, "Have you ever actually apologized?" He was like, "I don't know."
Charlie: I don't know if I ever used those words. I don't recall ever using those words.
Nicholas Inman: Thank you, Brenda.
Julia: Next day.
Nicholas: Well, welcome to the Dred Scott Reconciliation Forum. I know
Julia: Day two at the forum, about a hundred people crammed into the grand ballroom of the Hilton. And a preacher-
Nicholas: To begin today in our proceedings, I'd like to ask for you to stand with me and go to the Lord in prayer to watch these proceedings today.
Julia: -led the group in prayer.
Speaker 6: Heavenly Father, we come to you this day seeking your blessings in this room. We ask, Lord, that this reconciliation would begin today in a profound way to our hearts as we learn from our past to move to our future. Bless us this day and Lord, we give you praise. In Jesus' name, we pray and all of God's people say amen.
Preacher: You may be seated.
Minister Brenda Young: At this time, we would like for all of the descendants, if you will, to please just stand.
Julia: -these descendants get up on stage-
Ashton: Thank you and good morning everyone.
Julia: -one by one-
Ashton: I'm happy to be here as part of the reconciliation conference.
Julia: -and they give a little spiel about-
Shannon: Hello. Thank you so much. Thank you--
Julia: -who they are, what reconciliation means to them,-
Shannon: And a lot of people don't know that Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha, is a half-sister of Sally Hemings.
Julia: -things you might not know about their ancestor.
Shannon: They had the same father, John Wells.
Julia: Then after about five people had spoken,-
Announcer: Please welcome Charlie to the stage.
Julia: Charlie Taney got up to talk.
Charlie: Good morning. The first thing I'd like to do is tell you how glad I am to be here and I'm real honored and privileged to be here. Let me start with Roger Brooke Taney and what it was like to grow up as a Taney. To grow up as a Taney in terms of how we feel about him, it's a mixed bag. It's a very mixed thing because on the one hand as a Taney, you're proud of him. He was one of the longest-serving Chief Justices. The Bible he swore Lincoln in with is the same Bible that President Obama was sworn in on. However, that's not what he's known for. What he's known for is one thing. He's known for the Dred Scott decision. Just so we all want to get a handle on that, let me read just a sentence that he wrote. It was his opinion at the time of the Constitution that African-Americans, here's the quote, "For more than a century, had been regarded as beings of an inferior order, unfit to associate with the white race. So far inferior, they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect." So, you might be proud of him, but you can't tuck that. You can't tuck that. So, I looked up reconciliation. I looked it up this morning, the process of reconciliation. There are three steps. The first step is apology, the second step is forgiveness, and the third step is a new trust that grows out of that. Someone asked Kate about this issue of apology. What Kate said was, my daughter, said was, "A Taney bringing an apology to a Scott was like bringing a band-aid to an amputation. It just, it is not enough."
Julia: He was like, "You got to start somewhere."
Charlie: Let's make a little history today. From the Taneys to all the Scotts, you have our apology.
Julia: I spoke to Scott descendants afterwards.
Julia: How was that? What did you think of that?
Barbara: Very much more emotional than I thought.
Julia: That's great-great-granddaughter, Barbara McGregory.
Barbara: No one's ever apologized. Clinton made an apology some years ago but coming from him, it didn't mean much. When Taney got emotional when he was reading that letter, that was more heartfelt to me than anything else. The apology was okay but his emotion really touched me.
Julia: Barbara, the Dred Scott descendant, was like, "When he choked up reading that, I could feel that. Like that felt like healing." How are you doing?
Julia: Then I pulled aside her brother. Can I ask you what you're thinking about? How did you respond to all of that? Dred Scott Madison, the one with the eyes.
Dred: Everything was fine. It's just, to be honest, the last part-- I have to choose my words carefully. I didn't like it. I don't think somebody should have to apologize for something they didn't do. That's it. Their ancestors. I was very uncomfortable with that. The fact that they're here is apology enough. Apologizing for something your ancestor did-- You're part of a gene pool. You didn't do anything. You're judged by your works, not someone else's. Show me that you care. Don't tell me that you're sorry. Tell me that you're going to do better. So that's the only comment I have on that.
Jad: A couple final notes. When we talked to Dred Scott Madison later, he was pretty clear that Charlie Taney is already doing a lot of good. He's helping the Dred Scott Foundation to raise money. That's why he felt that Charlie didn't need to apologize. Also, when we started the story, there were statues of Roger Brooke Taney in Annapolis and in Baltimore, both in front of courthouses. This is actually how the Taneys and Scotts, one of the first ways that they've come together, they had decided collectively on a plan to amend those two statues. Rather than take them down, they had decided to put a Dred Scott statue next to them. That had been the plan. They'd been working on it. They had met with politicians. They'd met with the mayor of Baltimore. Then as we were finishing up the story,-
Newscaster: Good Morning America begins now with breaking news.
Jad: Charlottesville happened. In the wake of Charlottesville,-
Newscaster: We certainly do have some breaking news this morning. The Roger Brooke Taney statue is no longer standing outside the Maryland State House in Annapolis.
Newscaster: It's the latest image of a pro-slavery icon to come down in the wake of violent racial clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Jad: -both statues were taken down in the same week.
Jamie: It was really weird out here. I'm seeing about 25 to 30 people out here. Here's what happened. They started to rope off the street and then at 12:20, they started and they hoisted Taney up. It was a golf clap when Taney came off the pedestal here and was removed. Other than that, everybody was quiet. Nobody had an opinion on this and if they did, they kept it to themselves. 145-year history gone here tonight and I'll get out of the way. This is all that's left. This is the pedestal that is left.
Jad: More Perfect is produced by, me, Jad Abumrad, Suzie Lechtenberg, Jenny Lawton, Julia Longoria, Kelly Prime, Sarah Qari, Sean Rameswaram, and Alex Overington. Alex, go.
Alex Overington: With Elie Mystal, Cristian Farias, Linda Hirshman, David Gebel, and Michelle Harris. Thanks to Kate Taney Billingsley, who's play "A Man of His Time" helped inspire this episode. Supreme Court audio is from Oyez, a free law project in collaboration with the Legal Information Institute at Cornell. Leadership support for More Perfect is provided by the Joyce Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Charles Evans Hughes Memorial Foundation.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.