In Philly, a growing call to change city street named for ‘Dred Scott’ author

By: - June 20, 2020 9:25 am

A push to rename Taney Street has led to a rally for the effort on Saturday. Taney was a 19th century Supreme Court Chief Justice best known for penning the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case that declared enslaved people were not citizens and could not sue in federal courts. (Image via Philadelphia Tribune/Rename Taney Facebook page)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — The Frank Rizzo statue has fallen.

A statue of Christopher Columbus has been boxed up in South Philadelphia.

Is now the time to dump the name of a South Philadelphia street that honors a U.S. Supreme Court justice who authored the infamous opinion that said Black people weren’t U.S. citizens?

George Basile hopes so.

“The fact that we have any official designation for a white supremacist is nothing short of horrible,” Basile said.

The 23-year-old Temple University graduate wants to rename Taney Street, a street that runs through North and South Philadelphia.

The street currently is named for Roger Taney, a 19th century Supreme Court Chief Justice best known for penning the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case; the court ruled that enslaved people were not citizens and could not sue in federal courts. The 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution overturned the court’s decision.

Community leaders talk race, Columbus statue in South Philly

The northern part of the street runs through Council President Darrell Clarke’s 5th District and Councilman Curtis Jones’ 4th District, and the southern portion runs through Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s 2nd District. Clarke did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Johnson is open to renaming the southern portion Taney Street, but wants to see a formal written proposal before he makes any comments on the matter, spokesman Vincent Thompson said in a written statement.

“One critical thing to the Councilman will be to have discussions with the current residents of Taney Street to see if they would support a name change or not. The opinions of the current residents of Taney Street will be an important factor in any decision about the future name of the street moving forward.”

Basile, who hails from West Philadelphia but now lives in New York City, has been working mostly independently since 2017 to gain support for renaming the street.

While his online petition has garnered more than 500 signatures and he argued his case in an editorial that appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2018, he has not canvassed residents on the street to raise support for the name change.

But Basile, a self-proclaimed “history nerd” who dug into the origins of the street name after stumbling across the street while jogging, said he recently got the support of the Filter Square Neighborhood Association and South of South Neighborhood Association.

Ben Keys, a member of the Filter Square Neighborhood Association who lives on Taney Street in South Philadelphia, said the street name was a “symbol of racial exclusion.”

“Anything we can do to make our city more inclusive and make our communities feel like everyone is safe and welcome — this seems like a very easy place to start and the right thing to do,” Key said about renaming the street.

Basile believed the effort to change the street’s name would get a boost from the new support from local neighborhood groups as well as the ongoing protests around police brutality and racism.

The protests that erupted over the police killing of Floyd in late May have already led officials to remove and rethink public monuments in the city.

Mayor Jim Kenney unceremoniously removed the statue of Rizzo — the former mayor and police commissioner who oppressed Blacks and people of color — from the steps of the Municipal Services Building in the middle of the night in the first week of protests.

City workers have boarded up a statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia after a group of white vigilantes carrying baseball bats and other weapons rallied around the monument last weekend. The vigilantes clashed and attacked counter protesters.

A “public process” will determine whether the Columbus state remains in Marconi Plaza, Kenney said this week.

Demonstrators calling on city officials to rename Taney Street plan to march at noon on Saturday starting at Taney and Pine streets.

Keys, who will attend Saturday’s rally, said renaming Taney Street tapped into a nationwide effort to make communities more inclusive.

“As far as looking for things to do that are tangible, and sincere and anti-racist,” Keys said, “I think this is an obvious one given who Taney was and the choices that he made.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

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