Portrait of former NC Supreme Court Justice, slave owner removed from Orange County Courthouse

Orange County News

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The portrait of a former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice has been removed from the courtroom in the historic Orange County Courthouse after a request by a current judge, according to a release from the county.

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Carl R. Fox requested last week that the portrait of former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin be removed from the courtroom “because of his racist past and his participation in slave trading and slave ownership,” according to the release.

The county manager’s office complied with the request and removed the portrait.

According to Orange County, Ruffin was a Hillsborough attorney, farmer, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill trustee when he joined the state Supreme Court in 1829. He served as chief justice for nearly two decades, from 1833 to 1852.

The portrait of Ruffin was a copy of one that a UNC honor society commissioned, the release said. It had been hanging in the courtroom since a renovation in 1993.

According to the Orange County press release, “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.”

Fox wrote in a statement that State v. Mann (1829) “rivals the Dred Scott decision in its horror and inhumanity.”

The release goes on to say that “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.”

The Orange County Board of Commissioners said they applaud “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.”

To read the full release from Orange County, click here.

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