“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."
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