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Posted on: January 22, 2020

Portrait of former N.C. Supreme Court Justice removed from Orange County Courthouse

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Last week, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Carl R. Fox requested the removal of the portrait of former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin from the courtroom in the historic Orange County Courthouse “because of his racist past and his participation in slave trading and slave ownership.” The county manager’s office has complied with his request.

A Hillsborough attorney, Orange County farmer, and trustee of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ruffin joined the Supreme Court in 1829, serving as chief justice from 1833 to 1852. The portrait is a copy of one commissioned by an honor society at UNC. It had hung in the courtroom since a renovation in 1993.

Ruffin was nationally recognized during his lifetime for his keen judicial mind. Little mentioned after his death, however, was an opinion in recent years deemed to be among the most shocking in the entire body of slavery law. State v. Mann (1829), as Judge Fox wrote in a statement, “rivals the Dred Scott decision in its horror and inhumanity.”

State v. Mann gave enslavers virtually unlimited powers of discipline. In overturning a Chowan County’s verdict of assault against a man who had shot a young enslaved African American woman in the back as she fled from his chastisement, Ruffin wrote: “The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.” There was no legal or statutory precedent to justify the opinion. Its language was broadly circulated, licensing extreme physical abuse.

As a businessman, Ruffin trafficked in human lives: he secretly partnered with a South Carolina man in a speculative slave trading business. His personal life, too, indicates little respect for enslaved people: he once took a cane to an enslaved woman who had come on to his property without permission.

These facts are among those discovered in original research conducted by UNC law professor Eric Muller and Commissioner Sally Greene. As a result of their findings, the large portrait of Judge Ruffin prominently placed in the courtroom of the North Carolina Supreme Court has come under scrutiny. A committee named by Chief Justice Cheri Beasley is in the process of considering the appropriate disposition for this and the other portraits in the Court’s collection. Their deliberations are expected to continue through the end of 2020.

As the truth about Ruffin’s life and work becomes more widely known, it is increasingly difficult to justify his portrait in a position of special honor in any courthouse. The Orange County Board of Commissioners applauds Judge Fox’s exemplary leadership in recognizing the silent but very real impact that the portrait of Ruffin could have on the interests of fair and impartial justice in Orange County and in taking appropriate action.

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