Portrait of judge taken down because of his 'racist past'

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HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina county has removed a portrait of a 19th-century state Supreme Court justice from a courtroom at the request of a judge who said it didn’t belong there because of the justice’s “racist past.”

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Carl Fox requested last week that the portrait of Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin be removed “because of his racist past and his participation in slave trading and slave ownership,” Orange County government said in a news release Wednesday. The county manager’s office complied with the request, the release said.

Ruffin joined the Supreme Court in 1829 and served as chief justice from 1833 to 1852. During his era, he was known for his decisions on commercial law. However, it's a ruling in the case of a slave named Lydia that stands out today.

In State v. Mann in 1829, Ruffin wrote that “the power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.” Fox said the ruling “rivals the Dred Scott decision in its horror and inhumanity.”

In the Dred Scott case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that no African Americans could ever become U.S. citizens.

Meanwhile, a commission is reviewing the artwork in the state Supreme Court, including a large portrait of Ruffin, after a complaint about that painting was aired in a newspaper column.

“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 news release reads. “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.”

The portrait had hung in the courtroom since 1993.

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