On this dayMar 06, 1857

Supreme Court Rules Black People Are Not Citizens

Image | Dred Scott Painting by Louis Schultze, 1998 Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis

On March 6, 1857, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the United States Supreme Court ruled that black people were not Americans citizens and could not sue in courts of law. The Court ruled against Dred Scott, an enslaved black man who tried to sue for his freedom.

For years before this case began, Dred Scott was enslaved by Dr. John Emerson, a military physician who traveled and resided in several states and territories where slavery was illegal–always accompanied by Dred Scott. Dr. Emerson eventually took Mr. Scott back to Missouri, where slavery was legal. When Dr. Emerson died there in 1843, Mr. Scott was still enslaved.

After Dr. Emerson's death, Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sought freedom in the Missouri state courts. The Scotts argued that their prior residence in free territories had voided their enslavement. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against the Scotts and authorized Dr. Emerson's widow, Irene, to continue to own them. When Irene Emerson later gave her estate, including the Scotts, to her brother, John Sandford, Dred Scott brought suit in federal court.

Written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision held that the Fifth Amendment did not allow the federal government to deprive a citizen of property, including enslaved people, without due process of law. This ruling kept the Scotts legally enslaved, invalidated the Missouri Compromise and re-opened the question of slavery's expansion into the territories. The resulting legal uncertainty greatly increased sectional tensions between northern and southern states and pushed the nation forward on the path toward civil war.

Unable to win liberty in the courts, Dred and Harriet Scott were freed by a subsequent owner a few months after the decision. Dred Scott died just months later of tuberculosis, while Harriet Scott lived until 1876.

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