Chief Justice Roger Taney led a seven-justice majority in ruling that African Americans were not U.S. citizens at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857.
Frederick, Md., erected a bust of its favorite son in front of city hall in 1931. In the ensuing years, many of Frederick’s own have soured on the icon, which they claim is a monument to the nation’s tragic racist past.
“Sometimes I cry because I know what that statue means; it’s a statue of oppression, of hate,” the city’s former sanitation superintendent Gerald Palm told The New York Times. “This city is a representation of the South. It’s so subtle that most black people don’t care.” Many in the community share Palm’s sentiments — vandals dumped a can of red paint on the bust last year.
The city’s Board of Alderman voted unanimously to remove the statue last year, but have since been mired in logistical challenges. Lawyers say obfuscating the piece from public view would probably violate city preservation rules and state easement laws. The mayor’s office has lobbied prominent members of the community or civic organizations to take possession of the bust, but none are willing after last year’s vandalism incident.
Professor Josh Blackman notes on his blog that Frederick is not alone is raising a likeness of the notorious chief justice. Busts of Taney were commissioned for the old Supreme Court chamber inside the U.S. Capitol. Another sits in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court, destined to an eternal staring contest with Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone, who keeps watch across from him. Harvard Law School hangs two portraits of Taney on its grounds in Cambridge. The situation is further complicated by the fact that legal scholars largely respect Taney as a gifted jurist, while acknowledging his opinion in Dred Scott greatly diminishes the worthy contributions he made to American democratic life.
Bust or not, Taney was undone by history.
“The amendments to the Constitution,” Blackman said of the Civil War Amendments which abolished slavery and established equal protection, “are the greatest bucket of paint to Mr. Taney.”
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