Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s name has been removed from a historic warship in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor by the Living Classrooms Foundation amid an ongoing national reckoning over monuments and other historical ties to racism.
The former U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney, a national historic landmark and the last surviving warship from the attack on Pearl Harbor, serves as a museum for students and the general public focused on the men and women who served aboard.
Its namesake served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and delivered the majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford case, which asserted that free Black people and enslaved persons were not U.S. citizens at the time of the country’s founding and had no pathway to citizenship and no rights.
The foundation’s removal of Taney’s name from the ship serves as the latest in a series of gestures meant to acknowledge past wrongs and signal solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
James Piper Bond, Living Classrooms’s president and CEO, said in a statement Wednesday that the organization was inspired to make the change, calling the court ruling “an abomination” and “great injustice” toward Black Americans.
“The national historic landmark we are charged with stewarding should be reflective of our values of equality and opportunity for all,” Bond said in a statement. “We are not erasing history. Nor is it our intention to minimize the service and sacrifice of the men and women who have served with honor aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney. Our intention is to learn from history and celebrate the legacy of the ship and those who served aboard.”
The ship will, at least for now, be referred to by its hull identification WHEC 37, which stands for high endurance cutter, according to the foundation. The Taney name already has been removed from the ship’s stern.
“The name is being removed because it is a symbol of hate, repression and racial inequality,” said Chris Rowsom, executive director of the Historic Ships in Baltimore museum and vice president of Living Classrooms. “All of her records and artifacts and photos and documents we’ve collected over the years — nothing like that is going to be changed.”
The decision was approved by Living Classrooms’ board of trustees and its Historic Ships in Baltimore advisory board.
The Coast Guard was notified of the change by the foundation in coordination with the city of Baltimore, a spokesperson for the service confirmed.
“To preserve the proud naval heritage of the ship and honor all who served aboard during its 50 years of service, the Coast Guard recommends referring to the vessel by its hull classification symbol of (WHEC 37) per standard Coast Guard cutter designation,” said Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride in an email.
Born in Calvert County, Roger Brooke Taney studied law in Annapolis and was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1799. He became a prominent figure in the state’s Federalist party and eventually moved to Baltimore.
He supported the candidacy of Andrew Jackson and was named U.S. attorney general in 1831. Together, they led the crusade against the National Bank, and the president later named Taney as treasury secretary before appointing him to the Supreme Court.
Taney’s archaic and racist views are prompting people to question the legacy of a man who has been valorized with statues.
Statues of Taney outside the Maryland State House in Annapolis and in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon were removed in 2017, following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that summer and the subsequent calls to remove Confederate-era memorials around the country.
Rowsom said the foundation previously considered renaming the ship when the other monuments came down but decided to let the ship’s name stand. This time, he said, the decision felt necessary.
“The time was definitely right to take this action, and I’d like to think people will respond positively when they realize the reasons why, and realize we’re not erasing the ship’s historic record,” he said. “But with anything like this, when there are people’s emotions involved, it is going to be difficult.”
People across the U.S. have been reassessing its monuments, landmarks, anthems and memorials — sometimes to the dismay of historians and preservationists who caution against removing pieces of history and setting a precedent of erasure. Some have voiced support for rethinking the statues — including Baltimore’s Christopher Columbus memorials — and adding more context to explain the darker and more predatory sides of some figures.
Some argued that the moment calls for more drastic measures.
Diarra O. Robertson, an associate professor and chair of the department of history and government at Bowie State University, said educators and elected officials at the state and local level must lead the charge in teaching young students about the full complexity of the country’s history, including its many contradictions as a land of inalienable, equal rights.
Robertson suggested the Maryland legislature establish a committee comprised of scholars, lawmakers and historians to review the state’s monuments and reassess their value.
“When you put the various factors together, you’re talking about a context you haven’t seen in years,” he said. “This is a time for reflection, and there’s no time like the present to begin that process.”
Robertson said the state could take more steps to honor the legacies of abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and even Benjamin Banneker — a scholar and landowner with refined knowledge in myriad subjects — as well as highlight Maryland’s role in the Civil War and in the Underground Railroad.
“There’s a very rich history, so if there is a discussion, I think you can find several iconic figures that are more reflective of the image the state wants to have,” he said.
Meanwhile, some viewed the decision to eradicate Taney’s name from the historic landmark as an assault on the country’s past.
In a statement, U.S. Rep Andy Harris, Maryland’s only Republican congressman who serves the 1st congressional district, said the removal of the name counters the foundation’s educational mission.
“Attempts to re-write shortcomings in our history, instead of using them to educate future generations, is a very bad idea — especially for a museum whose whole stated purpose is history.”
Online, some called the Coast Guard cutter yet another undeserved casualty of “woke culture.”
Breaking News Alerts
Changing a ship’s name is not an uncommon practice, despite superstitions to the contrary, said Burchenal Green, president of National Maritime Historical Society, in an email.
She called the removal of Taney’s name “the difficult but right thing to do.”
“Maintaining the ship’s original Coast Guard hull designation succeeds in preserving her important role in our history while freeing her from a shameful legacy,” Green said.
The Living Classrooms Foundation said in its news release that it is committed to developing educational programming for the public about the Dred Scott decision, how it contributed to the country’s history of racism and the Civil War, and what led to the decision to remove Taney’s name from the ship. It also pledged to resume teaching about the people who served on the ship, as well as Black Americans who enlisted in the Navy during the Civil War.
The foundation has served as the ship’s steward since 1994. It recently raised $420,000 to dry dock the cutter for critical repairs and preservation. The work will take place at the U.S. Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay in fall 2020.
It also runs the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, which pays homage to Douglass and Myers as well as the 15 founders of the country’s first black-owned shipyard.
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
A previous version of this story misstated the gender pronoun of Burchenal Green. The Sun regrets the error.