Frederick Mayor Randy McClement has been trying to find a home for the Roger Brooke Taney bust since an October resolution was passed by the Board of Aldermen to relocate it from the front of City Hall.
But the mayor hasn’t found any takers yet, and even the Roger Brooke Taney House doesn’t want the Roger Brooke Taney bust. So that made us pause and raise the question: Why? It turns out that the Historical Society of Frederick County owns a second bust of Taney that was made by the same artist, but isn’t displaying it either, even at the Taney House.
We still maintain that if a bust of the controversial Supreme Court chief justice is to be publicly displayed then the Taney House is still the most suitable and logical site for it for educational purposes, since it is a museum interpretation of Taney’s life in Frederick.
In a Dec. 12 city notes column by Frederick News-Post Reporter Nancy Lavin, McClement said several places and groups he’s contacted regarding the bronze bust have turned him down. This was never supposed to be played out like an embarrassing game of “hot potato,” but, not surprisingly, that’s exactly what it’s become.
Taney was a chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for 28 years until his death in 1864. He practiced law in Frederick for about 20 years, owned property in the city and married the sister of Francis Scott Key.
But through the years, Taney became an increasingly controversial figure. While serving on the Supreme Court, Taney is credited by some historians as doing more to push pro-slavery views than any other justice in the history of the high court. As a former slave owner, he wrote the Dred Scott decision that declared that no slave or descendant of a slave could be a U.S. citizen, or ever had been a U.S. citizen and therefore were not entitled to the same rights as American citizens.
Still, by the early 1900s, local Frederick leaders wanted to honor Taney, so a bust was commissioned to be made by local artist and architect, Joseph Urner. The bust first appeared in front of what was then the Frederick County Courthouse on North Court Street in 1931.
It’s presence on public property, however, has always generated opposition, particularly during the past two decades. Critics contend the bust is a symbol of racism, white supremacy and hate speech and misrepresents Frederick County’s pro-Union role during the Civil War.
Supporters say the bust was a tribute to his 20 years as an attorney and is a part of Frederick’s history that should be used for historical, educational purposes. Some have even argued that Taney’s unabashedly, pro-slavery actions, now viewed as racist, turned out to be instrumental in pushing the country closer to the Civil War, which in turn led to the freedom of slaves and guaranteed their citizenship.
Though aldermen approved a resolution to relocate the statute, its removal is not guaranteed since City Hall is part of the Frederick Historic District. Translation: There will be many hoops to jump through. For example, any changes to the exterior, including sculptures, must be reviewed and approved by the Historic Preservation District Commission. City officials also want the Public Arts Commission to weigh in on the decision given the statute’s significance as a creation of Urner.
But none of that is expected to happen anytime soon — particularly if a home can’t be found. So now might be a good time as any to have a frank discussion about whether the bust should be publicly displayed anywhere. We did some research on this and it turns out that after Taney’s death in 1864, there was heated discussion the following year in the U.S. Senate on whether a bust should be commissioned to be displayed in the Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol.
Then Sen. Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, said he objected “that a now emancipated country should make a bust to the author of the Dred Scott decision.” Sumner then added: “The name Taney is to be hooted down the page of history. Judgment is beginning now; and an emancipated country will fasten upon him the stigma which he deserves.” A marble bust was eventually made and displayed in the Capitol. There is another one on display in Annapolis.
As we continue to learn more about Taney, it turns out the Sumner made a good point 150 years ago that continues to become clearer as time marches on. Symbols that were once innocently displayed with good intentions (such as a bust) end up being offensive to others and may become increasingly offensive as culture changes.
The mayor and Board of Aldermen are right — the bust doesn’t belong in front of City Hall. And if it is displayed anywhere, we think it should be at the Roger Brooke Taney House for educational purposes, where there is room to interpret Taney’s controversial past.
And if the historical society thinks it’s too hot to handle — well, then that should speak volumes to the community.