BY A. LAWRENCE CHICKERING AND JAMES S. TURNER
March 6, 1857, Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, wrote the 7-2 Dred Scott opinion finding that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves,” whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen.
On March 6, 2017, the 160th anniversary of that infamous decision—the worst in court history, historians say—Justice Taney’s descendant, Charles Taney of Greenwich, Connecticut, apologized to Dred Scott’s great-great-granddaughter under the gaze of a Roger Taney statue installed on the Maryland State House grounds in 1872.
The Taney/Scott moment underscored reconciliation, a touchstone component of a transpartisan approach. African-American Democrat Jill Carter, member of the Maryland House of Delegates, has introduced legislation to remove Justice Taney’s statue from the State House grounds.
Carter said her bill reflects a growing interest in reviewing public images of “slavery, discrimination and dehumanization of black people.” Many American institutions are reviewing the naming of buildings and the placing of markers that honor slavery supporters.
The Scott and Taney family descendants gathered at the Taney statue to give and seek an apology and to oppose removal of the Taney statue. They urge instead reconciliation, by erecting statues of Dred Scott and Frederick Douglass in positions of dialogue with Chief Justice Taney.
They also urge an educational display on the Dred Scott decision and its aftermath. Developing the content of such a display if it is established will, however difficult, continue the process of reconciliation. Scott’s owners freed him, his wife and his two daughters on May 26, 1857, which made national news. Scott died 18 months later from tuberculosis. His wife Harriet died in 1876. A local tradition developed of placing Lincoln pennies on top of Scott’s gravestone for good luck.
Reconciliation strengthens the soul of a nation.