Roger Brooke Taney’s name to be removed from Penn’s Carey Law School building

Roger Brooke Taney’s name to be removed from Penn’s Carey Law School building

Following a year-long evaluation and inclusive process, the name of Roger Brooke Taney, former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, will be removed from a decorative medallion adorning the exterior of the historic Silverman Hall at Penn’s Carey Law School.

The decision comes after a formal process led by the Taney Medallion Task Force, formed by Dean Theodore Ruger in May 2021. Dean Ruger instructed the committee to study the history of how Mr. Taney was commemorated on the building and recommend if to retain it. The law school, he said, is committed to fighting racism as part of its dedication to justice and equality before the law. Dean Ruger accepted the task force’s recommendation to remove Mr. Taney’s name from the decorative medallion. In February, Amy Gutmann, then president of Penn, endorsed Dean Ruger’s recommendation, guided by the framework proposed by the Campus Iconography Group (CIG).

The inclusion of Taney’s name on the building has long baffled and disturbed many law school students and professors, as Taney wrote the majority opinion in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case, which upheld slavery. and denied that people of African descent can become citizens of the United States. The case was a major factor in the civil war that began only four years later. The Dred Scott decision was overruled by the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to anyone born or naturalized in the United States, providing equal protection of the law for all citizens.

The task force, chaired by Sarah Barringer Gordon, Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History, was made up of law school staff, students, alumni, and faculty. Committee members researched Mr Taney’s background, held community meetings about the medallion and encouraged public comment.

“We approached our charge with a very open mind, investigating the history of the building and the message these medallions send to our community, and trying to find out more about how this particular decision was made” , said Dr. Gordon. “We consulted with current and former students, colleagues and community members and considered scholarship on the Dred Scott case and its perpetrator.” Among the questions the committee tried to answer were what connections Mr. Taney may have had to the University and what the prominent display of his name symbolizes.

Silverman Hall was the first law school building on the West Philadelphia campus and opened in February 1900. The exterior is lined on all four sides with decorative limestone shields and medallions bearing the names of family of legal luminaries. The task force learned that the names were selected by a committee of professors and administrators, with final approval by Distinguished Faculty Judge John Clark Hare, according to a final report by the task force on the medallion. However, they found there was no discussion in these documents of how Mr Taney was chosen to have a medallion on the building. Nor was there any evidence there or anywhere else in historical records associated with the building that Mr. Taney had any connection to the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr Taney comes from a prominent Maryland family that held generations of people enslaved on their tobacco plantation, according to the report. He studied law at Dickinson College and became Attorney General of Maryland before serving in President Andrew Jackson’s administration, eventually serving as United States Attorney General. President Jackson then appointed him to the Supreme Court, where he served as the fifth Chief Justice. Early in his life, Mr. Taney apparently opposed slavery and freed those he held as slaves in 1818. By the early 1830s, however, he became an increasingly doctrinaire supporter of slavery and believed that his opinion of Dred Scott would put an end to debates about slavery. Rather than ending the debates, the decision provoked immediate and sustained criticism. Dred Scott was a key factor in Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign in 1860 and a major factor in the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

In November 2021, the task force submitted to Dean Ruger its unanimous recommendation that the law school chisel Mr. Taney’s name on the medallion. A replica will be created and displayed in the Biddle Law Library, along with explanatory material associated with the building and the Dred Scott case. The task force recommended that a minimum of ten years should pass until a decision is made on which name, if any, should replace Mr Taney’s on the outside.

“The historic Silverman Hall medallions were selected over 120 years ago to inspire those who study in our buildings,” said Dean Ruger. “With this goal in mind and with the encouragement of the University, the committee I appointed took a deep dive into the story of Roger Taney and engaged the law school community in discussion. The committee recommended a plan that encourages action and education.

The law school is not the first Philadelphia entity to assume Mr. Taney’s legacy and retire his name. The Taney Dragons took the Little League World Series by storm in 2014, with their underdog status and 13-year-old star pitcher Mo’ne Davis. The team decided to change its name to Philadelphia Dragons in 2020 to remove the reference to the controversial jurist. And there is an ongoing effort to rename the city’s Taney Street after African-American activist and scholar Caroline LeCount. Other memorials to Mr. Taney have been removed in Annapolis and Baltimore and from the National House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.

The decision to remove Mr. Taney’s name is just one way schools and campus departments are taking a fresh look at iconography, said Joann Mitchell, senior vice president of institutional affairs and director of the diversity. The Campus Iconography Group, which met in 2020, was charged with examining issues of representation through art and symbols, particularly those considered to conflict with Penn’s values. This group, co-chaired by Ms. Mitchell and Frederick Steiner, Dean of the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, has developed frameworks that establish criteria for removing these works of art from campus grounds, as well as a set of guidelines for new acquisitions. The Taney working group used the CIG framework.

“The law school has been among the leaders in trying to carefully consider the images and messages it sends to their students, applicants and staff,” Ms. Mitchell said, noting the law school’s recent efforts to put highlight more diverse portraits. in their buildings.

The decision to remove Mr Taney’s name “was not just a knee-jerk reaction”, Ms Mitchell said. “It was a long, thoughtful and inclusive process. They submitted a detailed report outlining how it performed with the criteria set by the Campus Iconography Group.

Dean Steiner said the CIG framework is intended to help schools and departments assess a whole person, and in particular the whole person’s contribution to Penn. The Taney Medallion Task Force focused on setting up a process that would allow for a variety of responses and comments.

“The vast majority of students, faculty, staff and alumni have said that it really is long past time for us not to make sure that this is the message we are sending to the world,” said Dr. Gordon.

They only heard from two people, both students, who objected to the removal of the name, Dr Gordon said. One said the effort was too drastic; the second noted that Mr. Taney was the first Roman Catholic justice on the Supreme Court and believed the removal could send an anti-Catholic message. Dr. Gordon looked into this concern and found that there were very prominent Catholic critics of the Dred Scott decision at the time.

Dr Gordon said one of the aspects of the research that was most important to how the committee thought of Mr Taney’s locket was the work of the Monument Lab, the born public art and history studio of research at the Weitzman School, which made a survey of monuments in the United States. They found that about 3,000 Civil War monuments were erected between 1890 and 1920, and they were overwhelmingly dedicated to pro-slavery Confederate politicians, judges, and officers.

“The idea is not to erase all mention of Taney but to send a message from outside our building that does not condone human servitude and racism,” Dr Gordon said. “We don’t want to deny that Taney was on the outside and that many people in the Jim Crow era valued a ‘lost cause’ version of the Civil War. But we certainly don’t want to endorse this misinterpretation.

“We don’t want to erase the past, and we will work with our wonderful librarians at Biddle Law to create a more carefully contextualized understanding of who Taney was and why his decision was so important to American history,” she said. . “But we are also committed to projecting a more accurate and inclusive vision onto the exterior walls of our first law school building, which commemorates great legal thinkers.”

Adapted from a Penn Today article by Kristen de Groot, June 22, 2022.

Jon J. Epps