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University of Iowa News Release


April 4, 2007

VanderVelde Marks 150th Anniversary Of Dred Scott Decision

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous decision in Scott v. Sandford, better known as the Dred Scott decision, and Lea VanderVelde has been helping to explore its difficult legacy.

Vandervelde, one of the leading national scholars on Dred Scott, will appear at a two-day conference this weekend at Harvard University that examines the decision and its historical significance, as well as its current application to the law and civil rights. Earlier, VanderVelde participated in conferences examining the decision at Washington University in St. Louis and Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn.

Issued on March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court decided in Scott v. Sandford that black Americans are not and cannot be citizens, and so cannot be declared free. Few cases are as well known popularly as Dred Scott, and few have had such important historical ramifications, as it set the United States firmly on the track to civil war, and its impact continues to reverberate today.

VanderVelde, an expert in employment law, property law and the history of slavery in the United States, has published widely her research about the decision, as well as biographies of Scott and his wife, Harriet. Her Harvard panel discussion, "Dred Scott v. Sandford: The View of Historians," will be held Friday, April 6. Among her co-presenters at the conference will be Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, who will preside over a re-argument of the Scott decision with several judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Earlier, VanderVelde participated in the forum "The Dred Scott Case and its Legacy: Race, Law and the Struggle for Equality" at Washington University in St. Louis March 1. The Scotts lived in St. Louis at the time Scott filed the lawsuit seeking his freedom, and Washington University has the most comprehensive collection of papers relating to the case in the country. While at the conference, VanderVelde was very pleased to meet two of Dred and Harriet Scotts' descendants.

She also participated at The House Divided Project at Dickinson College on March 3. The workshop provided K-12 educators with a unique opportunity to study the decision, its principal figures, essential historical context and enduring legacy. VanderVelde participated as a biographer of the Scotts. Dickinson College is the alma mater of Roger Taney, the Supreme Court chief justice who wrote the Scott decision.

Although Dred Scott and his wife and daughters lived in St. Louis at the time he filed the lawsuit, Iowa played an important role in the history of the case. Scott lived on Rock Island at Fort Armstrong, just across the Mississippi River from the settlement that would become Davenport, from 1834 to 1836. His master, John Emerson, was an Army doctor stationed at the fort, which was located at site of the present day Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois. The incident proved to be crucial for the case because Scott based his argument that he was a free man on the fact that he had lived in Illinois, a free state.

When Fort Armstrong was decommissioned, Scott and his master moved north to Fort Snelling, in modern day Minneapolis-St. Paul, where he met his future wife, Harriet.

VanderVelde is the Josephine R. Witte Professor of Law at the UI College of Law. Her current book projects include "Slaves on the Frontier: The Background Story of the Dred Scott Case" and "Redemption Songs: How Slaves Sued for Freedom in St. Louis Courts." She played a role in the discovery of almost 300 freedom suits brought by slaves in the St. Louis courts that are now on file in Washington University. She is also at work on a monograph entitled, "The Master Narrative of 19th Century Law," which explores how master-servant law resisted change in the 19th century to continue to be relevant in modern employment relations.

VanderVelde is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010,