March 6 marked the 160 anniversary of what many consider the worst U.S. Supreme Court ruling in history. Known as the Dred Scott decision, it held that people of African descent living in America, were not American citizens, thus, they had no right to sue in federal court whether free or slave.
During the anniversary, about two dozen people gathered on the grounds of the Maryland Statehouse in Annapolis, Md. under the shadow of the statue of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, who handed down the ruling, for a celebration of reconciliation.
“So, today for all the Taneys, we face it,” said Charlie Taney, the great-great-great nephew of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, “and we offer deep apology to the Scott family and to all African-Americans for the injury caused by Roger Brooke Taney and this decision.”
In response, Lynn Jackson, the great-great granddaughter of Dred Scott looked up at Charlie Taney and said, “On behalf of the Scott family and all those African-Americans who have love in their heart, we accept your apology, and I thank you for it. I thank you for the courage that you have.”
Moments later, Taney, wearing a light blue sports coat and Jackson, wearing a full length leather coat, hugged. The crowd applauded the moment. One-hundred and sixty years had come full circle.
The ruling, which also affirmed the right of slave owners to expand the institution into the Western territories, was handed down on March 6, 1857, further infusing, under the U.S. Constitution, that Negroes had “no rights which the White man was bound to respect.” Slaves were not people. They were property. The opinion was written by Justice Taney. Many historians believe it helped draw America into the Civil War.
“The process of reconciliation has three parts”, said Taney. “The first part is an apology to the injured party. The second part is forgiveness. The third part is a new foundation of trust.”
The descendants of both families said they grew up fully aware of the legacy of their existence. Ten years ago, Jackson founded the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation in St. Louis to help educate the public about the Dred Scott decision and the struggle for freedom. During that time, she said she had been working to track down Justice Taney’s descendants, but to no avail.
In 2016, Kate Taney Billingsley, Taney’s great-great-great-great niece, produced a play titled: “A Man of His Time.” It was a fictionalized modern-day story about a Taney descendant and a Scott descendant meeting at a diner on the New Jersey Turnpike. Prior to the opening, at The Actor’s Studio in New York, Billingsley searched “Dred Scott” online and came across the foundation. Jackson flew in to New York for the performance and post-play discussion.
“The whole thing felt like you were meeting someone you were destined to meet,” said Jackson. “There was an atmosphere of . . . this is going to be good. We believe the Lord brought us together.” Billingsley said she was nervous. “I didn’t know because I had written this play and I didn’t know . . . it was that unknown part that made me scared. But when I met her, right away, we just sort of . . . it was like I had known her. I felt I had known Lynne before I had met her.”
There has been pressure from lawmakers and some groups over the years to move the 83,000 pound structure that was erected just a few years after the Civil War. Instead the Taney and Scott families said they envision the area as an educational tool. “We would very much like to see a statue of Dred Scott here” said Jackson, “and make that conversation open.”
“Wouldn’t it be great”, added Taney, if we “built an educational exhibit around it so that people could come here and learn the Dred Scott decision, what it meant, the aftermath, what it’s meant to our history and take this as a tremendous learning opportunity.”
Both families were presented with a plaque from Alexander William Haley, the grandson of “Roots” author Alex Haley. It read, in part, “Thank you for the transformative power of racial healing and reconciliation.”