Portrait removal could lead to deeper conversation

Last week, a portrait of North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin was removed because of his racist past and role as a slave trader.

He will always be buried in the St. Matthews Episcopal Church Cemetery. That he owned and lived in the Ruffin-Roulhac House cannot be changed. But last week, in one remarkable event, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Carl R. Fox requested the removal of the portrait of former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin from the Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough and placed into storage. It’s a move Orange County Commissioner Sally Greene believes will lead to a greater and deeper conversation about a man who has seemingly led two lives: one as a much revered legal mind; and one as an indefensible racist and slave trader.

Greene, who with friend and UNC Law Professor Eric Muller researched and completed an extensive report on Thomas Ruffin, began her journey into Ruffin’s past in 2001, at the request of the director of St. Matthews Episcopal, where Greene attended church.

“I found out that the North Carolina public story about Ruffin after his death through the 1970s was to only praise him,” Greene said. “He was, by all accounts, a smart, brilliant and hard-working judge. He made a lot of decisions that, in the economic world, were impactful. He was a very well respected judge. In fact, he was considered the state’s greatest judge.”

But being a lawyer herself, Greene, who works as an associate attorney at BalBrenner P.C. in Carrboro, understood how to do research, particularly with regard to court cases and rulings. One such case that stood out was State v. Mann, which gave slave owners virtually unlimited powers of discipline. In overturning a verdict of assault against a man who had shot a young enslaved African-American woman in the back as she fled from his chastisement, Ruffin wrote: “The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.” 

And that wasn’t all Greene and Muller’s research revealed. “Nobody mentioned anything about his own personal behavior,” Greene said. “And nobody mentioned that he had been a slave trader.”

Muller found that even Thomas Ruffin, in his day, kept his slave trading a closely held secret. 

“We talk about the N.C. motto ‘To Be Rather Than To Seem,’” Greene said. “Well, here we have Thomas Ruffin who, for most of the 20th century, seemed to be one thing, and yet underneath, was someone else. I discovered there were two Thomas Ruffins: The one the people of North Carolina knew of in glowing terms from the late 19th and early 20th century; and the one who authored State v. Mann, which the community of legal historians around the time of the civil rights movement agreed was the most shocking and most callous opinion that’s out there in the whole body of slavery law.”

Despite the appalling nature of the discoveries about Ruffin, Greene is quick to point out that the research completed by her and Muller was a fact-finding mission.

“Eric and I, in this role, are scholars. We’re not advocates,” she said. “I want to make this point clear, because it’s really important and true: Scholars need advocates. Advocates need scholars.”

James Williams, a retired public defender for Chatham and Orange counties, is one such advocate. He’s very much still around as a civil rights activist, and played a key role in the removal of the Ruffin portrait from the Orange County Courthouse. 

“It was James Williams who sent an email to Judge Fox outlining the history,” Greene said. “He (Fox) responded very quickly with an email expressing a complete understanding of the case State v. Mann, and that he would request that the portrait come down.”

Greene admits hoping the decision to remove Ruffin’s portrait from the courthouse in Hillsborough will be seen as precedent and lead to the removal of the larger, nearly full-size painting of Ruffin that still hangs squarely behind the Chief Justice’s seat in the N.C. Supreme Court. 

“We’re hoping to set an example,” she said, “and hope the Supreme Court will know about what we’ve done here. 

“I hope that this one action will start a conversation that could lead to other similar actions, but mostly get people talking about not just what we want to do, but why we want to do it.”