JoeyPinkney.com Exclusive Interview
5 Minutes, 5 Questions With…
Mark L. Shurtleff, author of Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story
An illiterate slave, Dred Scott, trusted in an all-white, slave-owning jury to declare him free. But after briefly experiencing the glory of freedom and manhood, a new Missouri Supreme Court ordered the cold steel of the shackles to be closed again around his wrists and ankles. Falling to his knees, Dred cried, “Ain’t I a man?” Dred answered his own question by rising and taking his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite the help of his white friends who loved him, Dred ultimately lost his epic eleven-year legal battle when Chief Justice Taney declared that a black man was so inferior that he had “no rights a white man was bound to respect.” He died eighteen months later not knowing that his unfailing courage and tenacity led directly to the election of President Abraham Lincoln, sworn in 150 years ago; and ultimately to the Emancipation Proclamation, Civil War and freedom.
Dred Scott’s inspiring and compelling true story of adventure, courage, love, hatred and friendship parallels the history of this nation from its founding, through the long night of slavery, to the narrow crack in the door he opened that would ultimately lead to freedom and equality for all men.
Joey Pinkney: Where did you get the inspiration to write Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story?
Mark L. Shurtleff: As Utah Attorney General, I enforce the rule of law to ensure justice for all. One day several years ago while studying famous court cases for a presentation, I re-examined the infamous Supreme Court decision, Dred Scott vs. Sandford, that declared a black man is not a man and has no rights that white man had to respect.
I was appalled by such a ruling and intrigued by the question: Who was this man, an illiterate slave, who had the courage and tenacity to persist in the white man’s legal system for eleven years to try to win his freedom. My further study convinced me that but for the man Dred Scott, Abraham Lincoln would not have been elected President.
I spent six years researching and traveling to every place Dred lived and marveled at his incredible story. I knew I had to share his personal story with all Americans so they could celebrate with me his heroism and example.
JP: What sets Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story apart from other books in the same genre?
MLS: There have mostly been legal tomes written about the constitutional and political implications of the infamous Dred Scott decision, with very little about Dred’s personal life. What had been written was all over the place, with some historians suggesting he was a “stupid, shiftless, pawn used by white abolitionists.”
My in-depth research, including interviews with his descendants and on-site research in the five states and territories he lived in, convinced me that Dred Scott knew exactly what he wanted and wouldn’t quit fighting until he secured freedom for his family. His personal story is inspiring as well as educational and also chronicles the history of this country from its founding through the Louisiana Purchase, War of 1812, expansion, Bleeding Kansas and the buildup to the Civil War. It also weaves in the life stories of the two key national figures who would play so prominently in the case and its aftermath: Chief Justice Roger Taney and President Abraham Lincoln.
My story also first chronicles the extraordinary and courageous involvement of the Blow Family who at their own financial peril and physical safety stood with Dred against the most powerful slave-owning family in Missouri; which is an example today of the need for all of us to pull together despite our ethnic, religious and political differences for the good of the nation.
JP: As an author, what are the keys to your success that led to Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story getting out to the public?
MLS: As the Attorney General of Utah, I have an opportunity to work with government and business leaders all over the country. I have gifted personalized copies of my novel to all fifty state attorneys general, many governors, and state legislators, U.S. Senators and Congressmen, justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and personally delivered a copy to President Barak Obama himself. I have received positive reviews and quotes (found on the book jacket and Sortis website) from the former Attorney General of Georgia, Thurbert Baker; former NAACP General Council and acting President Dennis Hayes and DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.
In addition I have given panels and presentations at American and Utah Bar Association Meetings, the annual meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General and numbers of other schools, and history and social clubs and literary groups.
This is a story for all Americans, but I feel it is especially important for African-Americans to know of Dred and Harriett Scott’s heroism and example and rely on reviewers and websites such as joeypinkney.com to spread the word. I Tweet and Facebook a lot about the book and use hashtags like #blackhistory and #blackhistorymonth, etc. to try to generate more interest and buzz.
I hope to be able to be interviewed by prominent national radio and television personalities to spread the word to a much larger audience. I think that not only is Dred Scott’s story compelling, but also my own story as to why the white Attorney General of Utah would invest so much time, passion and love to this project.
JP: As an author, what is your writing process? How long did it take you to start and finish Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story?
MLS: I began researching my book in 2002 by visiting the birthplace of Dred Scott, born “Sam Blow” at the Olde Place Plantation in Southampton County, Virginia. I walked the rows of cotton still grown on that site and researched historical court documents in the courthouse. Over several years I traveled the same route Dred’s masters took him: Down the Tennessee River to a new plantation in Huntsville, Alabama, cleared by Dred and his brother (who is buried in a slave cemetery) on what is now the campus of a Seventh Dad Adventist University; further down the river to Florence where Dred helped tend to horses and carried luggage to the Blow’s hotel; then along the river to the Ohio and up the mighty Mississippi to St. Louis where I spent many days in the Old Courthouse where Dred won, then lost his freedom, in the home of his attorney Roswell Field, in the library of Washington University that houses the Dred Scott state court documents, and prayed at Dred and Harriett Scott’s grave and cemetery and met with their great, great-granddaughter Lynne Jackson where I heard the family oral history; up the Mississippi to Fort Armstrong on Rock Island, Illinois then all the way up to Fort Snelling in modern Minneapolis, Minnesota; and ultimately to Corpus Christi, Texas. I swam in the Nottoway River in Virginia, the Tennessee, and the Mississippi rivers, and rode on several steamboats.
I read dozens of books, court records, and personal histories of those associated with the Scotts and spent hundreds of hours in internet searches. I read slave diaries and literature from the 1800s, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, to try to accurately reflect language, culture and customs.
When most of my research and travels were complete, I started writing in 2006. After the first hundred pages, I ran into a major emotional roadblock in that I questioned myself and my own credentials for telling the story of Dred Scott. I asked myself, “Who am I, a white man from Utah, to tell the story of slavery?” I questioned my own ability to, in the words of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird: “climb into [Dred’s] skin and walk around in it.”
I continued doubting myself until I met Dred and Harriett Scott’s great, great, granddaughter, Lynne Jackson in March 2007. We went together to the old Supreme Court Room in the U.S. Capitol Building on the 150th Anniversary of the decision. As we wept there together, I told her how much I had grown to love and admire her forebears then told her of my struggle with feeling worthy of telling their story. I asked her if she would read my first several chapters and give me her honest assessment. She called me a few weeks later and told me, weeping, that she couldn’t think of anyone who could tell it better. Inspired and freed from my own doubts and insecurities, I began writing again.
My final great roadblock that delayed completion of the novel was a terrible motorcycle accident in September 2007 and severely broke my leg. For eighteen months I went through eleven surgeries and suffered through two major infections, nearly losing the leg. The constant pain medications dulled my mental acuity and made it impossible for me to create. My leg was finally saved a month after President Obama was elected our first African-American President. I knew then it was time to finish this important story, for who knows if he could have been elected in 2008 if it hadn’t been for Dred Scott in 1857.
The book was done in July. I sold nearly all 10,000 copies of the first printing. My publisher did not pay me, and then went bankrupt. So now I have a new publisher, new look, and I hope to sell millions of copies and make Dred and Harriett Scott the nationally known heroes they really are.
JP: What’s next for Mark L. Shurtleff?
MLS: As Utah Attorney General, I have worked hard at home and nationally to protect civil rights and work for justice and equality. I have testified in Congress in support of “DC Vote”(full representation in Congress) and expansion and strengthening of Hate Crime Laws. I have long served as co-chair of the National Association of Attorneys General Civil Rights Committee.
My most current urgent goal is to defeat Republican calls for repeal or weakening of the Fourteenth Amendment. Inasmuch as it was Republicans who passed that amendment to overturn the Dred Scott decision, I feel it my calling as a Republican who understands and knows the history and purpose of such important Constitutional Amendments to educate and correct the misinformation that fuels the nativism and intolerance run amok during this current immigration debate.
As far as writing, I have begun work on the incredible true story of an experience I had while serving as a JAG officer in the United States Navy. I represented a Chief Petty Officer who was charged in a General Court Martial of wearing unauthorized medals (including silver and bronze stars and purple hearts) and refusing a direct order to remove them. His claim was that he earned in secret combat operations in Laos during the Vietnam War. The case became one of intrigue, suspense and ultimately murder of one of my witnesses, as I delved into the mysteries of top secret military actions and the terrible price paid by many of the men and women who served in that conflict.
As I traveled to the Pentagon and met with officials, veterans and POW families, my own preconceived notions and “my country right or wrong” attitude I had grown up with, began to change. The book is entitled An Apostrophe to Nam. The title and theme of the book are taken from the famous soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that has been called “An Apostrophe to Man:”
“Oh what a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world – the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me.”
Linked In: Mark Shurtleff, http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=27225291
Thank you Joey for your consideration. I would love to meet you in person sometime.
Mark L. Shurtleff
Utah Attorney General