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Free blacks struggled mightily for citizenship against formidable obstacles. While free blacks in some regions of the country immediately after its founding enjoyed the rights associated with citizenship, they were still treated as inferior and denied full citizenship. Even that limited recognition of their rights as Americans, however, disappeared during the early to mid-19th Century. It is important to note, moreover, that this was the situation in the North as well as in the South.
African-Americans responded to the growing segregation of American society through establishment of their own communities, including building schools and churches. As social progress in the North began to take firmer root, however, the division between North and South became more pronounced and tensions between abolitionists and pro-slavery factions grew. Passage by Congress of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 heightened those tensions, as free blacks in the north and their white supporters responded through passage of Personal Liberty Laws, which were passed by Northern States to counter the Fugitive Slave Act. These Personal Liberty Laws protected escaped slaves from being forcibly returned to their "owners" in the South.
The issue of citizenship, however, remained elusive and highly divisive. In one of the most controversial decisions in the history of the United States, the Supreme Court ruled in 1857 in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case, in which a slave, Scott, sued to be protected against being returned to the slave state of Missouri (he was living free in Illinois and Wisconsin at the time), that blacks could not be considered citizens of the United States and, consequently, did not enjoy the rights afforded citizens under the Constitution. As Chief Justice Roger Taney, writing for the majority, stated, the authors of the Constitution believed that blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."
In effect, the Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott case not only denied citizenship to blacks, it denied them their basic humanity.
The Dred Scott case was the final indignity for African-Americans and their white supporters in the North. As the South hardened its position on slavery, the country was set firmly on its path toward civil war.
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