Amid a heightened reexamination in recent years of how slavery and systemic racism have shaped the history and identity of the United States, the country has been forced to reckon with how it represents, honors or memorializes historic figures and events. One of the most prominent Marylanders in U.S. history has been at the center of this kind of reckoning.
President Joe Biden at the end of 2022 signed a bill directing that a bust of Roger B. Taney, the fifth U.S. chief justice, be removed from the U.S. Capitol. The measure directs Congress to remove Taney’s bust within 45 days of Biden signing it into law, which he did on Dec, 27. It also says Congress must replace it with one of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice and another Marylander who changed the course of U.S. history.
Taney was chief justice from 1836 to 1864, and he is remembered primarily for writing the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, in 1857. In that decision, Taney wrote that Black people, enslaved or free, had no citizenship rights in the United States and could not expect legal protection from the federal government. That opinion is memorable for its impact on U.S. history and for the language Taney chose.
In it, he declared that at the time the Constitution was ratified, Black people in the United States were “considered as a subordinate and inferior class of being, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them.”
As “beings of an inferior order,” Black people had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” Taney wrote. Black people in the United States “might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery” and could be considered “an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic wherever a profit could be made of it.”
Taney was born in Calvert County in 1777 to a wealthy, slaveholding family of tobacco growers. He later settled with his family in Frederick and then moved to Baltimore. He was married to Anne Key, whose brother, Francis Scott Key, wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Taney served in the Maryland House of Delegates and then was appointed state attorney general. President Andrew Jackson appointed him U.S. attorney general in 1831.
For decades, Black political leaders and educators were among those Marylanders who sought to have statues honoring Taney taken down. Black Americans and others have for many years objected to public displays of Confederate flags and monuments and statues honoring Confederate leaders. Calls to take down the statues of slaveholders and others associated with racial and other forms of oppression have also been heard for many years but went largely unheeded in the past.
But in recent years, as citizens, journalists and political leaders placed a much sharper focus on racial matters and the country’s racial history, the objections to certain monuments and symbols began to be taken more seriously by public and private institutions. Protests focused on statues of slaveholders in the South and elsewhere in the U.S. Protesters in the United Kingdom demanded that statues of slave traders there be taken down. The protesters sometimes took matters into their own hands and removed statues themselves.
The protests often occurred in the aftermath of incidents such as the 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, or following government decisions to keep Confederate or other monument in public places.
A Taney statue was removed from outside the State House in Annapolis in 2017 following years of objections based on his place in history. A copy of that statue was removed from Mount Vernon Place in Baltimore in reaction to the murder of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. A Lee-Jackson Monument, the Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument and the Confederate Women’s Monument were also taken down in Baltimore.
Members of the Maryland congressional delegation helped lead the effort to remove the Taney bust from the U.S. Capitol. U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, both Democrats, sponsored the legislation to remove the Taney bust from the building and replace it with one of Marshall.
Legislation to remove Taney’s bust from the U.S. Capitol was first introduced in March 2020 by then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and U.S. Rep. David Trone, both Maryland Democrats. That bill passed the House that year but did not advance in the Senate, then controlled by Republicans.
The bill signed by the president notes, “The removal of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney’s bust from the Capitol does not relieve the Congress of the historical wrongs it committed to protect the institution of slavery.” But this action reflects Congress’s recognition that Taney’s Dred Scott v. Sandford decision represents “one of the most notorious wrongs to have ever taken place.”
Van Hollen pointed to the stark contrast between Marshall’s legacy and Taney’s when it came to upholding principles such as liberty and equal justice. That kind of consideration is needed when deciding who deserves to be honored with a statue in the U.S. Capitol, he said.
“Justice Thurgood Marshall dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice and civil rights for all. We should be elevating leaders like him in our Capitol — those who broke down barriers on the path to shape the United States into the more perfect union we strive to create — not those like Roger Taney who fought to hold us back,” Van Hollen said. “As we continue to fight to build a more just and equal America, I’m grateful to President Biden for signing our bill to memorialize Justice Marshall’s work in the halls of Congress and honor his legacy of propelling our nation towards justice.”
Thurgood Marshall was born in 1908 in Baltimore, about 70 miles away from Roger Taney’s birthplace. Marshall’s mother, Norma Williams, was a schoolteacher, and his father, William Marshall, was a railroad porter who later worked at the Gibson Island Club, a whites-only country club. One of his great-grandfathers had been taken as a slave from the Congo to Maryland where he was eventually freed, according to the Legal Defense Fund website. Marshall founded the organization as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1940.
Marshall graduated from Lincoln University in 1930 and applied to the University of Maryland Law School. The law school did not accept Black students, so he was denied admission. He instead went to Howard University Law School, where he graduated first in his class. During his legal career, he would go on to represent the NAACP in a successful lawsuit that challenged the University of Maryland Law School over its segregation policy. He also led successful lawsuits that desegregated other state universities.
“As a lead architect of the civil rights movement, Marshall constantly traveled to small, dusty, scorching courtrooms throughout the South. At one point, he oversaw as many as 450 simultaneous cases,” according to the LDF website. Among other major victories, he successfully challenged a whites-only primary election in Texas in addition to a case in which the Supreme Court declared that restrictive covenants that barred blacks from buying or renting homes could not be enforced in state courts.”
Marshall became the leading strategist and legal voice in the effort to end racial segregation in the United States. In many parts of the country, he challenged the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal” facilities and institutions for white and Black people.
Arguing before the Supreme Court in 1952 and 1953, he struck the most consequential legal blow in U.S. history in the pursuit of equal justice for Black Americans with his victory in Brown v. Board of Education. The court’s 1954 ruling overturned “separate but equal,” as Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling. State-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. While the 13th Amendment had outlawed slavery, it wasn’t until three years later, in 1868, that the 14th Amendment guaranteed the rights of citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, including due process and equal protection under law.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy nominated Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. Four years later, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to become solicitor general. In 1967, Johnson nominated him to the Supreme Court.
During his tenure on the court from 1967 to 1991, Marshall’s opinions, whether in the majority or in dissent, reflected the principles he had fought for during his entire legal career. Marshall retired in 1991 and died less than two years later.
“In light of the sorry history of discrimination and its devastating impact on the lives of Negroes, bringing the Negro into the mainstream of American life should be a state interest of the highest order,” he said. “To fail to do so is to ensure that America will forever remain a divided society.”
Mark Williams is the Baltimore Banner’s opinion editor.