Saturday, December 27, 2003

FREDERICK, Md. — Frederick citizens have an uneasy relationship with Roger Brooke Taney, author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision, who lived in the city for 22 years before becoming chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Glorified by some for his civil service and vilified by others for his support of slavery laws, Justice Taney (pronounced “tawny”) left a dubious legacy — his modest, two-story red brick house with slave quarters in back.

Since 1929, a succession of owners have managed the property as the only museum dedicated to Justice Taney. The home’s first preservationists called it a “national shrine” to a man who swore in seven presidents and served the second-longest as the nation’s chief justice.

“I think he was a great man,” said H. Thomas Summers, president of the Francis Scott Key Memorial Foundation Inc., which owned the house from 1968 until this year. Justice Taney was the brother-in-law of Key, the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner”; both are buried in Frederick.

Now the Taney House has a new owner, the Historical Society of Frederick County, which plans changes in the worshipful approach taken by previous stewards.

“A need for accuracy, a need for the truth, is something the American public is sort of demanding now,” site manager Randy J. Davis said. “Museums are judged by what they appear to do, not necessarily what they do, so it’s extra critical for us not to appear partisan in any way or biased in any way.”

To that end, the society is asking black residents — including people from the predominantly black neighborhood around the property — for advice on reinterpreting the Taney House. Changes planned during the off-season will enhance understanding of the lives of the five to seven slaves who lived there, Mr. Davis said.

Similar efforts have broadened the appeal of other historic sites, including Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Va., and Hampton Mansion, a plantation in Towson owned by the National Park Service, said Sharon Reickens, deputy director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture in Washington.

“Folks seek out and try to find these places when they’re traveling across the country,” Miss Reickens said.

It’s not as though the Taney slave quarters — one small room in an outbuilding that also housed the stable and kitchen — have been a secret. They were among the attractions listed on a sign that once hung outside the Taney House, advertising 35-cent tours.

But the home’s history doesn’t sit well with neighbors such as Ruben Burnett, 83, who said he has never been inside the place and considers it offensive.

“I don’t think you’re going to find too many colored people that would be interested in this house,” he said. “They feel as if it was all wrong.”

Many people feel the same about Dred Scott v. Sandford, the decision most closely associated with Taney’s 28-year tenure as chief justice. He held that slaves, and even the free descendants of slaves, were not citizens and had no standing to sue in the federal courts. Justice Taney also wrote that Congress could not forbid slavery in U.S. territories.

His strictures, negated 11 years later by ratification of the 14th Amendment, became catalysts for the Civil War.

“Some scholars have assumed that Taney’s intentions were to sort of diffuse things. Instead, it enraged abolitionists,” Mr. Davis said.

Taney still rankles local civil rights activists, who have staged demonstrations in recent years outside his house and in front of a gaunt, bronze bust of Taney on the City Hall plaza.

“In general, in the community, Taney has been, I guess, a bit of a lightning rod when it comes to racial issues,” said Mark Hudson, the historical society’s executive director.

A copy of the Taney sculpture decorates the sitting room of the Taney House. It probably will be removed during the makeover this winter, along with other items, including a room full of Key memorabilia, that wouldn’t have been in the house when Justice Taney lived there.

Few changes will be made in the slave quarters, though. Mr. Davis said the rough-plastered room, crowded with spinning wheels, a butter churn, a crib and a long work table, fairly accurately represents the way it would have looked in the early 1800s. The only adult bed, a wooden cot with rope webbing, hangs from wall pegs.

Though the Dred Scott decision, delivered decades after Justice Taney left Frederick, is irrelevant to the home’s history or architecture, society officials acknowledged it may be the only association visitors bring to the Taney House.

“I hope one of the things we can do with the site is to use it as an opportunity to stimulate dialogue and discussion about the Dred Scott decision, providing people with enough objective discussion that they can draw their own conclusions, rather than us drawing conclusions for them,” Mr. Hudson said.

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