Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin, who served on the North Carolina Supreme Court from 1829 to 1855, has left a long shadow over our highest ideals and best traditions of justice and jurisprudence in North Carolina. A torturer of the Black people to whom he held deeds; a secret dealer in human flesh who tore enslaved children from the arms of their parents and separated enslaved wives and husbands from one another; worse still was his notorious decision in State v. Mann in 1829, which, according to legal scholars Sally Greene and Eric Muller, represented “undoubtedly the coldest and starkest defense of the brutality of slavery every to appear in an American judicial opinion.”
Yet an enormous painting of Ruffin still shadows our highest Court, front and center, high above the bench between two carved columns, peering like a Greek god over the shoulder of current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. Every person who seeks justice before the Court must still do so eye to eye with Thomas Ruffin.
The current Supreme Court will soon decide Ruffin’s place in our public displays of history, where he now towers in silence as “our greatest jurist.” The NAACP and people of goodwill demand that Thomas Ruffin has no place on the walls of an American courtroom. Not life-size front and center, not on a postage stamp on the back wall—Ruffin belongs not in the halls of justice but in the halls of history, where citizens and students can study his legacy and hold the kinds of civil and civic discussions that its horrific complexities demand.
Because worse than his personal savagery, Ruffin reshaped the laws of slavery to enable and encourage unrestrained violence against the bodies of the enslaved. In the Mann case, a harsh master, John Mann, prepared to savagely whip an enslaved woman, Lydia, and she fled. Enraged, Mann shot Lydia, inflicting a terrible wound. A local jury found him guilty of assault and battery. Mann’s appeal gave Chief Justice Ruffin the opportunity to sweep away white Southern paternalist delusions about slavery and plumb the depths of its inherent inhumanity.
With slavery, Ruffin wrote: “The end is the profit of the master, his security, and the public safety; the [slave], one doomed in his own person and his posterity, to live without knowledge, and without the capacity to make anything his own, and to toil that another man reap the fruits." The enslaved will never accept the plunder of themselves and their posterity, Ruffin reasoned, but the logic enslavement requires the dire and constant threat of unspeakable violence by the master. "There is nothing else which can operate to produce the effect. The power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect... This discipline belongs to the state of slavery." State v. Mann thus declared for the ages that no master should ever be called into court to answer for brutality, no matter how vicious, against a human being, so long as the assailant held a deed to that person.
His admirers on and around the Court today argue that Ruffin was merely a “man of his times,” just another slaveholder in a regrettable slave society. His peers did not agree. A June 3, 1824 letter to Ruffin from a white neighbor complained of his practices “too cruel to be put on paper,” but wrote of bloody whippings, burning the skin of the enslaved, the use of red pepper and salt on their wounds—Ruffin’s overseers “literally barbecuing, peppering and salting” Ruffin’s slaves.
No mere “man of his times,” Ruffin was a violent and influential extremist in the disputes of his day over slavery.
To hold Thomas Ruffin in a place of highest honor in our Supreme Court undermines the moral authority of our courts and the principle of equality before the law at a critical hour when many citizens—especially our young people—regard that ideal as a quaint notion, if not merely a centuries-old fraud. There are those on and around the Court who advocate a so-called “compromise” that will leave Thomas Ruffin’s likeness on the walls of the court. We will not abide by this nor support those who do.
This particular Supreme Court now comes to an end and its members must decide where Thomas Ruffin belongs---on the walls of our highest court? Or in a museum, place for historical and civic discussion. If the Justices remain silent, this issue will remain unresolved for many years; the only moral clarity will come from the young protestors, whose hopes for our nation our blindness continues to betray. If justice remains silent, that will speak volumes about our vision of the fragile democracy seeking rebirth in this hour of national crisis. We will remember who found the wisdom and courage for the facing of this hour, and who stood silent or defended a tradition which we must never forget, but never commemorate.
Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President
North Carolina Conference of NAACP Branches