Philadelphia street has a Civil War-era link: Who was Roger Taney?

Confederate Monuments Baltimore
The empty pedestal of the statue of former Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the Mount Vernon neighborhood in Baltimore after workers took down four Confederate monuments in the city. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Philadelphia hasn’t had to deal with the question of what to do with monuments that honor the Confederacy and its soldiers and statesmen, but it does have one curious memento of the nation’s stained legacy of slavery: Taney Street, named for Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the principal author of the Dred Scott decision, the 1857 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that paved the way for the Civil War.

Taney Street runs in a broken line from South Philadelphia along the western fringe of Center City, right by Taney Field, home of the Taney Dragons, whose campaign in the 2014 Little League World Series became one of the city’s proudest moments.

The Taney Dragons was the feel-good story of the summer of 2014. They were a team that reflected our nation’s embrace of diversity: players were of different races and different social and economic backgrounds, and its star pitcher was an African American girl with long braids and a mean curve ball. Mo’ne Davis and the Dragons made it to the semifinals, where they lost to the eventual champion, a team from Chicago.

The makeup of the Dragons meant that everyone could get behind them. The irony is that their name was that of a judge who ruled that blacks could not be citizens, and therefore could not be assured of the freedoms spelled out in the Constitution.

Read more: Maryland removes Dred Scott ruling author's statue

The irony is not lost on George Basile, a Temple University political science major, who last week posted a petition on Change.org to rename Taney Street and Taney Field. It echoes a similar petition posted on MoveOn.org last summer.

“Most people are familiar with the Dred Scott case and just how horrible a decision it was,” said Basile, 21, “and Justice Taney was the author behind the ruling that marginalized African Americans and … contributed to starting the Civil War.”

Basile’s petition has gotten little traction, with barely 25 signatures.  There are three petitions about Philadelphia’s Taney memorials in Change.org and one in MoveOn.org.

The issue of renaming Taney Street has never “been much of a public debate” in Philadelphia, said mayoral spokeswoman Lauren Hitt.

“We’ve had some letters to that effect, and we have referred those people to City Council, who would be the ones to pass such an ordinance,” she said.

Basile, who lives in Center City, hopes the recent uproar about what to do with Confederate monuments will add momentum to efforts to rename Taney Street. He said he was especially heartened that Baltimore officials this week removed statues of four men considered heroes by the Confederacy, including Taney, a Maryland native.

Benjamin Keys, who lives near the park, supports the petition.

“I am very enthusiastic about changing the name,” said Keys, a professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The street is named after someone who said that African Americans could never be citizens in this country. … [Renaming the street] is one of the easiest and most obvious things that we can do to recognize mistakes that have been made in the past.”

Keys said Philadelphia “has absolutely no reason to honor [Taney] with the naming of a street.” His only connection to Pennsylvania is that he attended Dickinson College in Cumberland County.

Attorney Richard McMenamin lives down the block from Taney Field. He said he didn’t realize the street had been named after Justice Taney.

“I’m shocked to hear that this was named for Justice Taney, who [was behind] one of the worst decisions in the history of American jurisprudence.” He said he’d be happy to see Taney’s name removed.

Not every one of their neighbors agrees.

“I think this is political correctness pushed to the point of insanity,” said a homeowner who said she has lived on the street for more than 30 years. She said she understands the push behind efforts to remove statues of Confederate heroes.

“So would I care if they change the name? Would I try to stop it? Honestly, no.”

Several residents wondered what the street would be called once Taney’s name was removed.

“It should be named after Mo’ne Davis,” said Basile.

Camera icon Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun
A statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney was removed from its position on Mount Vernon Place in Baltimore on Tuesday.