Why a Black History Month? Look at Taney

February 22, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

At Mount Vernon Square, a pigeon is perched on the forehead of Roger Brooke Taney's statue, cooing with contentment. One can only hope that somewhere -- possibly down there where it is hot, down there where the sun never shines -- Taney's spirit is aware of the indignity.

In my view, the former chief justice of the United States is one of the great villains of American history and I refuse to let him rest. Each February since 1992, I have suggested an inglorious fate for the statues erected in Taney's honor over 100 years ago. Once, I suggested that the statues be toppled from their pedestals, dragged through the streets and dumped into the limpid waters of the Inner Harbor. Last year, I suggested that skilled workmen smash Taney's likenesses into tiny bits of gravel for use as litter in the elephant exhibit at the Baltimore Zoo.

And this year? Well, perhaps the statues can serve as perches for homeless pigeons -- we might as well get some use out of him.

In 1857, Chief Justice Taney wrote the Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, decided that blacks had no rights under the U.S. Constitution.

But Taney did not content himself with a scholarly opinion, written in the verbose legalese that prevailed even in that period. Instead, Taney argued passionately that blacks were a "degraded" and "inferior race," scorned throughout history by the "civilised and enlightened portions of the world" and therefore "doomed" to a life of slavery for their own good.

Blacks, wrote Taney in a passage that quickly became notorious, "had for more than a century before [the ratification of the Constitution] been regarded as being 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 a white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit."

Taney's language and sentiments were so extreme that legal scholars say it took more than a decade for the Supreme Court to regain its lost prestige and credibility. Meanwhile, the Dred Scott decision further polarized the nation and pushed the country closer to civil war. Nevertheless, Southern sympathizers in Baltimore dedicated a statue to Taney in 1887, putting it in a place of honor across from the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon Square. A duplicate of the original stands in front of the State House in Annapolis.

As I have written each year, the Taney statues symbolize why we still need Black History Month. Every February, we try to graft favorable stories about the role of blacks in America onto the national consciousness without disturbing, or even examining, the racist views that have tainted our official history for the past 200 to 300 years. It is not easy.

I believe Roger Brooke Taney ought to be vilified -- like Benedict Arnold or John Wilkes Booth; school children should read primers on his misdeeds. But many others regard Taney as a hero -- an otherwise gifted jurist who made an unfortunate but legally defensible decision that is "politically incorrect" by today's standards.

Which was he? Can a historical truth be determined? Are we, as a society, bold enough to make the attempt?

Taney may have been a hateful racist bigot who, in order to maintain white supremacy in America, deliberately twisted the intent of the framers of the Constitution.

Or Taney may have been a great and courageous humanitarian who loved black people, wept in private over their plight, but felt compelled to uphold the constitutional principle of states' rights.

But he could not have been both. And the way we view Taney affects how we view black people. Did blacks carry themselves in such a way that a reasonable person could fairly conclude in the 18th and 19th centuries that they were an "inferior" and "degraded" race who would be better off as slaves? Was black involvement through history such that "civilised" people despised them?

We cannot continue to maintain a segregated and contradictory view of our past. We cannot argue on the one hand that blacks are people of intrinsic worth while celebrating as heroes the people who despised them. Taney belongs to the pigeons.

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