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Urban Rhythms

A Monumental Crime

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 2/7/2001

It's a gray day in February, and I am pushing my way through the cold, pelted by freezing rain, to stand at last before the statue of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney in Mount Vernon Square.

"Who's that, Mommy?" a little girl asks, staring up at the grim, gray frozen visage.

"Hush child," the mom hisses, tugging urgently at her daughter's arm. "Don't look at him. He's pure evil. If you look at him too long, your eyeballs might pop out."

Naw, that conversation didn't really happen. I just wish it had.

Every February for the past several years, I have made my pilgrimage to confront the Taney statue. Each year I keep hoping to arrive and find that something really, really horrible has happened to it--that it has been blown up or torn down; that someone has chopped off its head or covered its torso with obscenities. Each year I am disappointed. I suppose I must content myself with the knowledge that the real Justice Taney has been shoveling coal in hell for nearly 150 years.

The Taney statue in Mount Vernon Square is a monument to our need for Black History Month. Taney, a native Baltimorean, headed the U.S. Supreme Court during the period leading up to the Civil War. In the court's Dred Scott decision in 1857, Taney described blacks as a "subordinate and inferior class of beings" who must be treated as property even if they manage to escape to freedom. Arguing that this view clearly represented the intent of the Founding Fathers, Taney wrote that blacks "had for more than a century before [the ratification of the Constitution] been regarded as beings 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 the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race."

The passage proved inflammatory even for its time. It enraged the North and encouraged the South. It was so patently partisan that it wiped out any hope of avoiding a civil war, and it took decades before the Supreme Court could repair the damage to its own reputation. Yet after the war, Southern sympathizers in Baltimore erected a monument to the author of those vile words. They placed it in a site of supreme honor across from the city's monument to George Washington. And they erected another tribute to Tandy across from the State House in Annapolis.

And only during Black History Month does anyone think to question who we are honoring, or why.

Here are the questions we must, as a society, answer: Could decent, God-fearing people legitimately reach the conclusion that Taney reached, either about the intent of the Founding Fathers or about blacks? Is there any context, beyond that of good and evil, for considering a person who looked into the face of enslaved Africans and concluded that they deserved their plight or were somehow benefiting from it?

These are not just academic concerns. The Bush administration includes at least two Cabinet members--Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton--who believe that history has given the Confederate States of America a bum rap. Several Congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, are featured speakers on the neo-Confederacy lecture circuit.

And when the descendants of enslaved Africans objected recently to the flying of Confederate symbols over the state capitols of Georgia and South Carolina, the most they could achieve was a draw. Georgia reduced the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy in size but refused to remove it from the Georgia state flag entirely. South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag from atop its state capitol but insisted on flying it at another location on the capitol grounds.

Contrast this attitude with that of Germany after World War II. The Nazi Party was banned. Nazi paraphernalia was outlawed. Schoolchildren were taught unequivocally that Nazi Germany's treatment of the Jews is one of the great moral crimes of history.

For 11 months of the year, we are not nearly as certain about the evil of slavery. We like to pretend that those who set themselves up as "masters" didn't know any better, as though they had legitimate excuses not to understand or recognize the agony of the human beings they had captured and enslaved. We like to pretend that while some enslaved Africans suffered, others weren't so bad off--and anyway, it was all a long time ago, so get over it.

And so, Baltimore's Taney statue remains, still in its place of honor across from Washington. It is not a relic of history. It stands as a monument to the depraved indifference of today.

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