Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Wife of a Celebrity

ONE SUMMER DAY in 1857, as a freedwoman was ironing in her own front room on an alley in St. Louis, she saw a pair of white men approach. Her two daughters were busy assisting her, stoking the fire and moving the heavy irons from stove to ironing board so they would be hot enough to smooth the wrinkles from the freshly laundered clothes. At the back of the room, behind another ironing board, her elderly husband was asleep.1

The laundress watched cautiously as the white men came nearer. When they reached the wooden porch, they called out to her, “Is this where Dred Scott lives?” Her husband was now famous; his name was known across the country.

She hesitated. “Yes,” she said.

“Is he at home?” This wasn’t the first time people had come looking for him.

“What’s the white man after that Negro for? Why don’t the white man tend to his own business, and let that Negro alone?” she replied. The freedwoman was a respectable, smart, tidy-looking black woman in her 30s, the men later wrote. From the spirit of her answer they knew her to be Dred Scott’s wife and nobody’s slave.

There was a rustling at the back of the room. From behind the second ironing table, an old black man raised himself to see the visitors. He recognized them. He assured her, “It was all right.” He’d met the gentlemen before.

“One of these days they’ll steal that Negro,” she continued, but she yielded as the white men entered the house, encouraged by Dred’s acknowledgment.

The men were journalists from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and their account of Harriet Robinson Scott is the only existing first-person description of her by anyone who ever actually met her. The journalists had approached Dred at the fairgrounds a few days before and asked to interview him and take his picture. When he didn’t show up at the photographers’ studio, they found him through his lawyer, obtaining a letter of introduction and his address.

Dred explained that more interviews would just bring him bad luck. The white men pulled out the lawyer’s letter to show the Scotts, and although neither could

-9-

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