Taney's tainted legacy

The Baltimore Sun

FREDERICK -- A bronze bust of Roger Brooke Taney stares sternly ahead, as if he were watching the two cherubs frolicking in the fountain in front of City Hall. Author of the inflammatory Dred Scott decision affirming slavery, Taney has been immortalized here for 75 years, largely ignored by passers-by.

But as Frederick has grown and become more diverse, a small band of residents is looking to move, or remove, this tribute to the Supreme Court chief justice who once resided in the city, saying his racism can no longer be condoned - even in the context of history.

"It's quite offensive to have that there," said E. Kevin Lollar, an attorney who is also director of development for Frederick's Housing Authority. "I realize that it's a part of history, but so were a lot of other things that we eventually let go of."

Lollar has joined forces with the head of the local NAACP and the leader of United Latinos of Greater Frederick to prompt a public discussion about the bust. The trio hopes that conversation will convince the city's mayor and aldermen to put Taney's likeness in what they believe is a more appropriate spot; the local museum is one possibility.

The group is looking to capitalize on the General Assembly's passage this year of a resolution expressing "profound regret" for Maryland's role in slavery. Taney's decision, meanwhile, was lambasted here last month by Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who said it "threw the country on its ear."

In the 1857 majority opinion, Taney ruled that Dred Scott, a Missouri slave who had traveled with his master into free territory and wanted his freedom made permanent, should remain enslaved. The language Taney used in describing black Americans forever tarred his legal legacy - despite his nearly 30 years as chief justice. He wrote that the Founding Fathers regarded blacks as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

While respectful of the ire that Taney's writing still sparks in many today, not everyone thinks a potentially divisive debate about Taney's 150-year-old decision - and more broadly about race - would be good for Frederick.

"It's a huge battle - I'd rather spend our time and energy dealing with issues that are going to help people right now," said Mayor William J. Holtzinger, a Republican who was elected in 2005. "Moving or not moving that bust isn't going to do a thing to help people."

Alderman Alan E. Imhoff, a Republican who has lived in Frederick for 23 years, said he doesn't see "any real reason to remove [the bust]."

"What has passed has passed, and it's all part of the fabric of our American life," Imhoff said. "Chief Justice Taney was more than just one issue in the life of the country."

The doorway to scenic Western Maryland, Frederick has long been known statewide for its politically conservative leanings and homogeneity. But during the past two decades, the city's population has boomed, and its black and Hispanic populations are on the rise.

Between 1990 and 2006, Frederick's total population has soared nearly 47 percent, from 40,148 to 58,882, according to U.S. Census data.

Blacks make up about 15 percent of the city population, up from 13 percent in 1990. Hispanic residents are about 5 percent of Frederick residents, more than double their percentage of the population in 1990.

Irene Packer, board chair of United Latinos of Greater Frederick, said she believes a public dialogue about the bust could lead to a more pressing discussion of how the city can take better care of its underserved populations, in the area of affordable housing, in particular, and diversity education.

"I think that the county is changing so much, and so rapidly - almost what happened in Montgomery County - that we haven't taken the time to consider those issues," said Packer, who lives in nearby New Market and works as senior vice president for the Development Training Institute in Ellicott City.

But signs that such a conversation might not be welcomed by some were bountiful on a recent steamy Friday afternoon. Resident after resident approached by a reporter along historic Market Street, lined with shops and cafes and even a sign protesting Starbucks, declined to comment for this article. City Attorney Saundra Nickols dodged an inquiry (and did not return subsequent phone calls) about the formal public process for removing an item from city property. Would the five-member board of aldermen vote? Could the mayor make the decision? Is a public hearing required?

Seated at his office desk, the mayor, meanwhile, gestured to a table overflowing with blueprints to make his case for staying focused on city business. He noted that just a small group of people have written to him and the aldermen requesting that the Taney bust be moved.

"We could open up the floodgates on that," he said, noting that officials have never considered taking the likeness of known slave owners, such as Thomas Jefferson, off the nation's currency.

Lollar, who is lobbying for the change as a private citizen, said a mayoral aide approached him recently with a counter pitch. The city could place a plaque next to the Taney bust explaining the Dred Scott decision and its impact on history.

No dice, Lollar replied, after consulting with Packer and Guy P. Djoken, president of the Frederick County branch of the NAACP. The bust or, well, bust.

Lollar even asked the Maryland attorney general to determine if residents could argue that placement of the bust violates their civil rights.

"While I certainly empathize with what they're raising, I do think it comes to where civil rights and the First Amendment merge, and where that occurs, nine times out of 10, the First Amendment will trump civil rights issues," said Carl O. Snowden, director of the office of civil rights in the Maryland attorney general's office. "As it should."

Statues of Taney stand in front of the State House in Annapolis and in the Mount Vernon neighborhood in Baltimore.

State Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse said that public interest in removing the State House statue, placed there in 1872, has percolated periodically. But rather than remove it, officials opted in the 1990s for balance, placing a corresponding statue of Justice Thurgood Marshall nearby.

"The Taney statue was placed there with public funds for a public person," Papenfuse said. "Taney was more than the Dred Scott decision. I think our role is to understand, appreciate and not to sanitize our history, not to ignore it, and to appreciate the total story."

Taney was born in Calvert County but resided for two decades in Frederick with his wife, Anne Key, the sister of Francis Scott Key.

The Frederick bust was unveiled Sept. 26, 1931. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes was the guest of honor at the dedication ceremony.

Mark S. Hudson, executive director of the Historical Society of Frederick County, said that from time to time, a shroud mysteriously appears covering the Taney bust - especially on days of commemoration. In 2000, for example, Taney's view was darkened on Frederick Justice Day.

Frederick Alderman Donna Kuzemchak, a Democrat, said she has read Lollar's appeal and backs him 100 percent. If the bust is an abomination to some, she said, it must go. She said, however, that the question of its fate could raise tensions in the city. She forecast a heated public debate.

"Good ole boys want to leave things where they are," Kuzemchak said. "To them, life is fine. But suggesting that moving this is whitewashing history is bunk. Things have changed everywhere, and you should change with them."

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

Taney's language in the 'Dred Scott' decision: "It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race. ... They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

Roger Brooke Taney

(pronounced Taw-nee)

Born: 1777, Calvert County

Died: 1864

Family: Born to wealthy, slave-holding tobacco farmers in Maryland. Later freed his own slaves.

Education: Graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., 1795; studied law under an Annapolis judge.

Legal experience: Admitted to the bar in 1799 at Annapolis. Moved two years later to Frederick, where he practiced law until moving to Baltimore in 1823.

Political experience: Served a term in the Maryland House of Delegates and another in the state Senate; served as U.S. attorney general under President Andrew Jackson from 1831 to 1833; and though he was appointed secretary of the Treasury in 1833, the U.S. Senate rejected his nomination in 1834.

Supreme Court: Appointed by Jackson, he served as chief justice from 1836 until his death at age 87. Taney was widely criticized by Abraham Lincoln and others for the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford case, which affirmed slavery. It found that a slave could not bring suit in federal court.

Sources: U.S. Senate Web site; www.britannica.com; Sun archives

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