A portrait of former North Carolina Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin has been removed from the Orange County Historic Courthouse due to research that discovered Ruffin was an enslaver, a slave trader and the author of State v. Mann, which allowed enslavers to use nearly any means necessary to exercise limitless control over their slaves.
This research, which was conducted by Orange County Commissioner Sally Greene and UNC law professor Eric Muller, was used by James Williams, the first vice president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, to advocate for the removal of the portrait.
Greene said in an email that it can be difficult to draw the line between honoring history and fighting for justice.
“When it comes to the American South, honoring history and fighting for justice are the same project," she said. "So much of what has passed for history of the Civil War and its aftermath was really the propaganda of the losing side. Setting the historical record straight is critical to a full and honest reckoning with our past.”
Muller said over email he was inspired to contribute to this research after communicating with Greene, who had been conducting research about Ruffin’s legacy for a number of years prior.
“I am very interested in how we remember the past — in particular, how we remember the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II, which is the main focus of my own scholarship," Muller said. "And I found the continued veneration of Ruffin deeply troubling, especially once I dug into his letters at Wilson Library and saw the hidden truth about his brutality to enslaved people in his own personal life."
Last month, Williams reached out to the Orange County Commissioners to request the formation of a portraiture committee.
Following Williams’ request, the assistant county manager agreed to the portrait’s removal upon request by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Carl Fox. Fox then requested the removal a few days later, citing a precedent in which a portrait of former U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Peter Phipps, who had a similarly racist past, was removed from the mural courtroom.
Muller said although he played a significant role in the activism that prompted the portrait’s removal, he thinks decisions like this one call for careful reflection.
“I personally do not favor the indiscriminate removal of every person’s name simply because of the fact of slave ownership," Muller said. "I think that — as with Ruffin — we should be asking ourselves where in the context of their own time people stood. Those who, like Ruffin, lagged far behind the moral mainstream of their own eras certainly have no claim on our continued honor today."
Williams said he has a reputation for activism within these spaces. In the past, he has called for a resolution for the removal of all Confederate monuments, flags and markers of similar type from courthouses and courtyards. Not only has it since been approved, but an Advisory Commission On Portraits For The Supreme Court Of North Carolina was also established as a result.
“Public spaces should be welcoming to all and should not house markers or emblems of any kind that are at odds with our shared values of equality and justice for all," Williams said over email. "This is especially true of courthouses where decisions about the guilt and sometimes humanity of Black people are made; whether they go to prison or are set free; whether they live or die. A courtroom is no place for the veneration of white supremacy."
Greene said she hopes this decision can serve as precedent for others that follow. Currently, a larger portrait of Ruffin sits behind the chief justice’s seat in the state Supreme Court.
“A committee appointed by the chief justice is currently considering whether the portrait should continue to occupy that space," she said. "I hope that Orange County’s decision will inform and inspire their thinking."
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.