NC Supreme Court removing portrait of slave owner ex-justice

The North Carolina Supreme Court says it will remove portrait from its courtroom of a former slave-owning chief justice who once defended slavery through his court rulings

Chief Justice Portrait
Chief Justice Portrait

The North Carolina Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will remove a portrait of a former chief justice from its courtroom who staunchly defended slavery and owned slaves himself.

Thomas Ruffin, a slave owner in the 1800s, believed an owner's power over his slave was absolute. He once wrote in a court ruling that slaveholders should not be convicted for the assault or battery of an enslaved person.

The court's decision to remove the portrait took note of Ruffin's slave ownership and his rulings defending slavery. Its announcement said Ruffin was regarded by his contemporaries as “particularly brutal in his ownership of slaves.”

The decision folllowed a recommendation made last week by the Advisory Commission on Portraits, which the court formed in 2018 in response to calls for the portrait's removal.

A smaller portrait of Ruffin was removed from an Orange County courthouse earlier this year, as was a statue of him from the entrance of the state Court of Appeals building. The appeals building was once named after him.

Outgoing state Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley said in a statement that a Supreme Court seal will replace Ruffin’s portrait in the court. Beasley is the second Black chief justice in the court's history.

“It is important that our courtroom spaces convey the highest ideals of justice and that people who come before our Court feel comfortable knowing that they will be treated fairly,” Beasley wrote. She called the decision to remove the portrait “a tremendous reflection of the progress that has been made since the time Chief Justice Ruffin served on the Court.”

Ruffin served on the North Carolina Supreme Court from 1829 to 1852 and again from 1858 to 1859. He wrote an opinion that overturned the conviction of a slave owner, John Mann, for shooting in the back a slave named Lydia who fled after refusing the owner’s orders. Ruffin wrote that a slave’s obedience “is the consequence only of uncontrolled authority over the body.”

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Follow Anderson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BryanRAnderson.

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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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