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December 14, 2022

Dred Scott author Roger B. Taney is one step closer to leaving the Capitol

Credit: Roll Call

A bill to remove a bust of former Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, who authored the Dred Scott decision, cleared its final congressional hurdle Wednesday and will now be sent to President Joe Biden for signature.

The statue must be removed from its prime spot in the Capitol within 45 days of the bill becoming law. It will be replaced by a bust of Thurgood Marshall, the court’s first African American justice.

The goal of the bill is to make “Taney a-goney,” as Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., put it during a rhyming moment in Wednesday’s floor debate.

It is a bittersweet victory for Democrats, who wanted to see a broader purge of the Capitol’s art collection, including other white supremacists.

“While 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, it expresses Congress’s recognition of one of the most notorious wrongs to have ever taken place in one of its rooms, that of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney’s Dred Scott v. Sandford decision,” according to the text of the bill.

Taney, who was born into an aristocratic slave-owning family in Maryland, authored the 1857 decision that ruled Black Americans, whether enslaved or free, were not U.S. citizens and did not have a right to sue in federal court.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Rep. David Trone, both from Taney’s home state of Maryland, initially introduced legislation to remove Taney’s bust in March 2020. That bill advanced out of the House but died in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The House made another push last year to remove Taney and other men who supported slavery or segregation, like Charles B. Aycock, John C. Calhoun and James P. Clarke. That bill also went nowhere in the Senate.

“Those of us who are African Americans came first in the bottom of the belly of a slave boat,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said on the floor Wednesday. “We’ve never had that acknowledged, but it was acknowledged in the Dred Scott decision … with this effort of Roger Brooke Taney to say we were less than a person.”

Taney’s removal is part of a push in recent years, largely led by Democrats, to remove symbols and artwork honoring Confederate leaders and other controversial historical figures.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reported this year that 377 Confederate memorials had been removed, renamed or relocated around the country since 2015, though more than 2,000 remain in the U.S.

The Maryland State House Trust, which oversees the state capitol, voted in 2017 to remove a statue of Taney from the Maryland State House.

This latest effort to remove the congressional Taney statue was introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin and passed the Senate by voice vote last week.

The bust of Taney is located in the Old Supreme Court Chamber, a room on the ground floor of the North Wing of the Capitol where the Supreme Court was located from 1810 to 1860.

“It’s a tragic irony that the people’s house was built by Americans who were originally excluded from those extraordinary first three words of our Constitution: ‘We the People,’” Hoyer said on the floor Wednesday, referring to enslaved laborers who helped construct the Capitol building. “While we cannot remove the stones and bricks that were placed here in bondage, we can ensure that the movable pieces of art we display here, celebrate freedom. Not slavery. Not sedition. Not segregation.”