Taking it Down
City Hall’s Bust of Roger Brooke Taney is a Symbol of Racism and Hate for Many. Why is it Still There?
The bust of Roger Brooke Taney, fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and a Frederick resident, sits in front of City Hall in Downtown Frederick. It endures the heat and thunderstorms of summer and the snow and ice of winter, just as it has since 1931 when it was created by local artist and architect Joseph Walker Urner.
Back then, local officials placed the bust on a pedestal in front of the building that, at the time, served as the county courthouse, a fitting place, they likely thought, for a likeness of such a famous jurist. But time has worn on Taney’s legacy, just as it has on the bust itself, leaving many to wonder why a man so controversial is still being honored in 2017.
He may not be much longer.
In the past two years, the bust has been the talk of the town, the object of discussion and debate among city officials, historians and residents. In the final three months of 2016, there was a resolution passed by the Board of Aldermen to take down the bust, followed by a hearing by the Historic Preservation Commission, a public comment process and a request for a court review that will delay the removal and relocation of the statue.
So, for now, the bust stays—inciting harsh words from critics of Taney and his notorious ruling. “It is offensive and tantamount to racial hate speech,” says Willie Mahone, a local attorney and president of the Frederick Chapter of the NAACP.
DRED SCOTT V. SANDFORD
Roger Brooke Taney was a successful lawyer and jurist. His roots were firmly planted in Maryland and his branches reached Frederick when he came here to practice law. He was born in Calvert County, but eventually moved here and married Anne Key, the sister of that other famous native, Francis Scott Key.
In 1857, Chief Justice Taney wrote the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, concluding that states had no right to prohibit slavery and slaves had no right to sue to claim U.S. citizenship. Scott was a slave who had traveled between free and slave states and sought to gain full legal rights and status as a free man. In his decision, Taney characterized slaves and their descendants as “beings of an inferior order” with “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The Dred Scott decision has been characterized as a harsh blow to the Abolitionist movement and an indirect catalyst for the Civil War.
Count Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak among local residents who say this history should not be heralded. She likened the Taney statue to “a bust of Hitler in front of Germany’s parliament. If we don’t remove it—it will be remembered as the worst thing that we’ve ever done.” She says City Hall is a place where all residents should feel welcome and comfortable. Her resolution to remove and relocate the bust was unanimously approved last fall, but she’s quick to point out that the matter has been a topic of debate for nearly 20 years.
“A legislative body passed this resolution, but the catalyst was members of the community,” Kuzemchak says. She and the other aldermen determined that a plaque placed near the statue in 2009 in an attempt to explain the Dred Scott decision and provide historic and cultural context, will be removed, too. In addition, a nearby sculpture of Thomas Johnson, first governor of Maryland and himself a Supreme Court justice, is slated for relocation.
Mayor Randy McClement describes himself as a “history buff,” but declined to give his personal opinion about the bust, saying his job in this case is to carry out the decision of the Board of Alderman. His staff found a new location for the statue at Mount Olivet Cemetery. The city then submitted an application to the Historic Preservation Commission because the statue is on property in the Downtown historic district. Guidelines say that the bust can be relocated but must remain on public display and made available to citizens. Critics say that while they don’t see the value of the bust for display purposes, their main objective is to have it moved away from City Hall.
NAACP’s Mahone has said for several years that the bust must go. Furthermore, he says that from a legal perspective, Taney’s decision was “overreaching, not well-reasoned and erroneous. He erroneously alleged facts that didn’t exist. He said blacks were precluded from military service, for example, which was patently untrue.”
Another longtime critic of Taney and the monument is David Key, president of the African American Resources Cultural History Society (AARCH). In a 2015 letter, Key stated, “The fact still remains that Taney’s Dred Scott decision was in no way sensitive to African Americans, nor was the law at the time. Needless to say, African Americans would be hard-pressed to embrace or hold him in high esteem, Frederick city resident or not.” Today, Key simply says, “If we are to tout that we are in a much better country than we were then, we don’t need to hold [the bust] in high esteem.”
Rose Chaney, another board member of AARCH was among those who submitted comments to the historic commission: “It’s time for Frederick City to do the right thing and move the bust that is a symbol of the belief that ‘all men are NOT created equally.’ To have that remain is an insult to our diverse community. The words Taney used have been credited as being the worst decision by the Supreme Court. Move him to another place but NOT in a place of honor in front of a government building. … Taney’s name is honored already in many places in Frederick. History is only significant if we can learn from the past.”
After the public comment period, the historic commission approved the relocation of the busts of Taney and Johnson, saying the removal will have little visual impact to the surrounding streetscape or surrounding historic properties. It concluded that “even without the busts, City Hall would retain its ability to demonstrate its significance as a site of local governance and will maintain its notable Italianate architecture.” The report also points out that other protected sites such as the Taney House and Rose Hill Manor, the retirement home of Thomas Johnson, can serve as resources for research for those who wish to know more about those men.
Not everyone wants to remove the bust. “The Frederick City staff was going to make this as slanted as they wanted so that the Aldermen could get what they wanted. We feel as though they could have looked at it a different way,” says Charles W. Eyler Jr. He and two other local residents have filed a petition for judicial review, effectively stalling the bust’s removal by asking the court to examine the historic commission decision. This came just as the city was preparing to begin the relocation work.
Eyler says that he and his fellow petitioners, Theresa Mathias Michel and John George, are interested in both keeping a watchful eye on city departments’ decision-making and preserving history. “I try to look at this as an educational issue,” he says. “This is a removal of something that is historical—a historic artifact.” He says he is interested in educating people about Taney. “He spent the majority of his life working for the U.S. He made the national legal system important. Take away the Dred Scott decision and you have a very solid guy who got a lot done.”
And, while he acknowledges that the language in the Dred Scott decision is objectionable, he says, “It’s our history. There is nothing we can do about it. All white people at the time thought that black people were inferior as a race.”
Not so, says Dr. Terry Scott, history professor at Hood College. She teaches and writes about African American social and cultural history and says the Abolitionist movement was well established and strong in Maryland and throughout the country in the 1850s. “People find comfort in compartmentalizing the man and the decision. They ignore the horrific impact of what he did. They try to normalize it,” she says. “On the heels of the Fugitive Slave Act you have the Dred Scott decision which is overreaching. Now the entirety of the U.S. is unsafe for blacks. This is how I teach the Dred Scott decision: as one of the obstacles faced by Abolitionists.”
Does Scott think the bust has a place at City Hall? “It’s abhorrent to me. A bust heralds a person.”
In the coming months, the challenge to the historic decision will play out in court with a succession of briefs and finally a judge’s ruling. The process is viewed as one more bump in the road by Chaney and others who are eager to put the matter to rest. “I am dismayed that there are still people who will not accept what elected officials voted on after public comments were presented,” she says.
Mahone emphasized that the opponents of removing the Taney bust certainly have the right to petition the court, but he believes their case lacks merit. “The city has spoken. The glass is three-quarters full as opposed to being one-quarter empty. I take solace in the community moving forward.”
Professor Scott watches the saga and looks to history for the lessons to be taught and learned. “History teaches us what to do and what not to do. It’s OK to acknowledge that it was wrong. And it’s what we should teach future generations. We study all. We don’t celebrate all.”