Dred Scott Decision Denies Citizenship to Black Americans

1845 — 1857

United States

Discrimination & Inequity Identity & Belonging

The Dred Scott v. Sandford decision was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling dictating that people of African descent (whether free or enslaved) were not citizens and, therefore, ineligible to sue in a federal court. In what is now considered to be one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions, the Dred Scott decision spurred widespread dissent by anti-slavery activists and ultimately contributed to the start of the American Civil War.

Dred Scott was a man born into slavery in Virginia who was moved extensively between slave and free states, a common experience for enslaved Africans. On the grounds of living in a free state, Scott sued for his freedom in Missouri in 1847. A 10-year court battle ensued. Although Scott eventually won his freedom in lower courts of St. Louis, two years later the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision. Scott and his lawyer brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled against Scott, stating that a Black man could not be a citizen, and therefore had no right to sue for his freedom. After the court’s decision, Scott was returned to his master’s widow where he was freed. He died several months later of tuberculosis, never to see the impact and aftermath of his historic court battles. The Dred Scott decision added to the boiling tensions between the North and South at the brink of the Civil War. It was not until the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1870 (see also: Citizenship Granted to “All Persons” Born on US Soil 1870) that the Dred Scott decision was overturned.