The Mayor and Board of Aldermen are working up a modified version of Alderman Donna Kuzemchak’s August 6 resolution that called for the removal of the head and shoulders brass bust of former supreme court chief justice Roger Brooke Taney from its position by the main steps of City Hall. Taney is most famous – most would say infamous – for the 1857 Dred Scott ruling, widely regarded as the worst in the history of the US Supreme Court.
It declared ‘negroes’ to have no civil rights being mere property, moved to legalize slavery throughout the country, legitimizing the most extreme southern secessionist passions, and put the nation on the path to the terrible Civil War.
We understand the modified resolution on the Taney memorial will:
- declare Taney’s bust to be inappropriate in its present location by the front steps of City Hall
- note that the City was not involved in the decision to place it there in 1931, that it simply came with the former Courthouse building when the City moved there in 1985
- say the Taney bust should be relocated to a more suitable venue
- authorize seeking proposals for hosting the memorial, but
- leave it in place while the more suitable venue is sought.
The resolution introduced by Alderman Kuzemchak August 6 concluded saying “the time has come for the Taney bust to be removed entirely.”
The thinking then was that the brass sculpture would go into City storage for a time while a new host was found. The compromise is that it should remain in place until a new location is found for it.
Criticism of the proposal to move the Taney bust has often misrepresented it as an effort to “erase history.” In fact the proposal is to relocate it, not to erase it.
Misrepresents our history at City Hall
In its present location by the steps of City Hall almost in the shadow of the national and state flags the bust suggests that the City honors Taney. A child of a slave tobacco plantation owner on the Patuxent River in tidewater Maryland he was a southern racial extremist who worked passionately from his position on the US Supreme Court to hobble President Lincoln and advance the confederate cause for the duration of the Civil War.
Frederick by contrast was a strong Union town in the Civil War with our young men overwhelmingly volunteering to fight for the Union. Local hostility to the Confederates is celebrated in the legend of Barbara Fritchie. It is therefore a grotesque distortion of history to have a notorious Confederate supporter at the steps of Frederick’s City Hall. The relocation of the Taney bust to a Taney museum or to his gravesite will present history more accurately.
The issue has been heavily reported and discussed in the Frederick News-Post. It also made the Wall Street Journal, the nation’s highest circulation newspaper September 3. By Jess Bravin the report began:
FREDERICK, Md.—Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision that enshrined slavery and paved the way to the Civil War, is honored across his hometown, which boasts a Taney Avenue, Taney museum and Taney’s tomb, where a plaque declares him “an upright and fearless judge.”
That may be changing as Frederick, along with much of the nation, reassesses pro-Confederate iconography following the June Charleston, S.C., church shooting, where the suspected killer posed with Confederate symbols. At an August meeting, a majority of the all-white Board of Aldermen indicated they are ready to remove a bust of Taney that sits at City Hall’s entrance, after beating back similar proposals in previous decades.
“I think the location of the statue is inappropriate,” said Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak, who has been trying to remove the Taney memorial since 1997. She said the Charleston shooting focused attention on the message the bronze sends. “Maybe this is a time we can actually do something about this,” she said. (end quotes WSJ)
Further down Kuzemchak is quoted as saying she favors the Taney bust being donated to a local museum.
The Wall Street Journal report backgrounds the infamous Taney opinion thus:
Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford read white supremacy into the Constitution and required the expansion of slavery to western territories. He wrote that the framers considered blacks “an inferior and subject race” the Constitution implicitly excluded from citizenship. “The Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery,” because the Constitution provided him “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
After the war, critics besieged his reputation. Taney, “like many other bad men who have figured in troublous times, should go down to oblivion,” Sen. Benjamin Franklin Wade (R., Ohio) said in the 1865 debate. After the Confederacy’s defeat, the Dred Scott decision was nullified by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which abolished slavery, protected individuals from unfair treatment by state governments, and expanded voting rights to all races. (end quote WSJ)
The report reproduces a black and white picture of the dedication of the Taney bust in 1931, flanked by the then chief justice of the Supreme Court Charles Evans Hughes and the then Maryland Governor Albert Ritchie in front of what was then the county courthouse.
We don’t have a copy of the new resolution yet but here is the text of the initial resolution moved for discussion by Ald.Kuzemchak at Mayor & Board meeting of August 6:
A RESOLUTION concerning
Relocation of the Roger Brooke Taney Bust
WHEREAS, Roger Brooke Taney was born in Calvert County and practiced law in The City of Frederick from 1801 to 1823, when he moved his practice to Baltimore; and
WHEREAS, Taney served as a member of the Maryland State Legislature, as Attorney General of Maryland and of the United States, and as the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury; and
WHEREAS, as U.S. Attorney General, Taney averred that the “African race . . . even when free, are everywhere a degraded class, and exercise no political influence. The privileges they are allowed to enjoy, are accorded to them as a matter of kindness and benevolence rather than right”; and
WHEREAS, in 1836, when he was no longer a resident of The City of Frederick, Taney was appointed the fifth justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; and
WHEREAS, Taney is best known for writing the opinion of the Supreme Court in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, holding that African Americans were not United States citizens and had no right to sue, stating that slaves “have no rights which any white man is bound to respect”, and also declaring unconstitutional the provisions of the Missouri Compromise Act prohibiting the holding and ownership of slaves in certain territories of the United States; and
WHEREAS, the Dred Scott decision, generally considered one of the most reviled Supreme Court decisions in history, represented a defense of the most extreme pro-slavery position in the United States, and moved the country to the brink of the Civil War; and
WHEREAS, in 1931, sculptor Joseph W. Urner cast a bronze bust of Taney as a memorial to him, subsequently installed in front of the Frederick County Courthouse; and
WHEREAS, in 1986, The City of Frederick acquired the Courthouse property for use as City Hall; and
WHEREAS, the Taney bust was simply conveyed with the property on which it was located; The City of Frederick did not expressly decide to install or maintain the bust in the City Hall courtyard; and
WHEREAS, in 2009, following calls for the removal of the Taney bust, a plaque was installed next to the bust, explaining the Dred Scott decision and providing historical context so as to educate residents and visitors; and
WHEREAS, The City of Frederick values diversity and equality, and strives to foster and encourage a diverse community; and
WHEREAS, The City of Frederick is a hub of arts, culture, commerce, and government, and is a city rich in heritage and opportunity; and
WHEREAS, the Mayor and Board of Aldermen strive to remain sensitive to the City’s history and preserve it to the greatest extent possible; and
WHEREAS, City Hall is prominently located within The City of Frederick; the building is frequented by residents conducting routine business; those participating in public hearings, and visitors from all over the country and the world; and
WHEREAS, the City Hall courtyard and grounds comprise a city park, City Hall Park, which is used regularly for public gatherings and recreational activities; and
WHEREAS, while the plaque was a well-intentioned compromise, the time has now come for the Taney bust to be removed entirely.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE BOARD OF ALDERMEN OF THE CITY OF FREDERICK that the bust of Roger Brooke Taney be removed from the front of City Hall and relocated to a museum or other venue that is more appropriate for its placement. (end resolution of Aug 6)
Wall Street Journal report (you may hit a toll gate):