Last June, a few dozen protesters came out to Taney Street, with demands to change its name — one that many believe honors the author of the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court opinion, Justice Roger B. Taney. The justice wrote in 1857 that Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
In 1858, a Philadelphia street became Taney Street.
Nearly a year after the Fitler Square demonstration, members of the Rename Taney Coalition are continuing to press their case, and held an event Sunday afternoon at the Young Chances Foundation Community Engagement Center in Grays Ferry.
“I think of Taney as one of the strongest symbols of white supremacy,” said Ben Keys, one of the coalition’s lead organizers. The Supreme Court decision he authored “is as egregious as they come,” Keys said, and the timing of the street naming in the late 1850s is “unambiguous.”
“That name means exactly one thing in 1858,” said Keys, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Taney Street resident.
The street’s name isn’t a new problem, Keys said. The coalition has heard from residents, for example, who were bothered by the name when they moved to the neighborhood in 1985.
The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the widespread uprising in response to his death motivated residents to try to change Taney Street’s name — as communities and local governments across the country have confronted racist histories tied to monuments and named landmarks.
In Philadelphia last June, the city took down a statute of former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, which Mayor Jim Kenney called a “deplorable monument to racism, bigotry, and police brutality.” The statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza, meanwhile, remains covered by a box amid a lawsuit to stop the city from removing it.
The Kenney administration has also been developing criteria to review city landmarks and monuments, and to allow the public to request “the removal, renaming, or recontextualizing” of those that “represent a history of racism, bigotry, or colonialism,” according to the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy. The office is accepting public comment on those plans through May 30, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Changing the name of Taney Street would require legislation in City Council. The street runs north/south on non-consecutive blocks, crossing three different council members’ districts, from South Philadelphia, through Fairmount and North Philadelphia.
Tyrique Glasgow, executive director of Young Chances, said he got involved in the Rename Taney effort because the justice’s decision “that Blacks didn’t earn the same rights as whites in America,” as Glasgow put it, is symbolized today by poverty and food insecurity in the community.
“The decision was not to let us breathe, to not let us live a life to create survival,” Glasgow said.
Young Chances opened the community center in October 2019 on the corner of Tasker Avenue, a block from South Taney. The foundation operates a summer camp, and has given out food, hot meals, and masks during the pandemic. On Sunday, members of the Rename Taney coalition planned to distribute bags with masks and literature on the renaming push along the 1500 and 1600 blocks of South Taney.
“This is an opportunity for our community to stand up,” Glasgow said. “We see this and we want it changed. It changes how our kids talk to each other. Because they’re going to have a conversation about how they changed something in their community.”
Separately last year, the then-Taney Youth Baseball Association announced plans to rename itself because of the “very real negative feelings” associated with the Taney name. The organization — home of the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Little League champions and their pitching phenom Mo’ne Davis — now goes by Philadelphia Dragons Sports Association.
Much of Rename Taney activity so far has occurred in City Council’s Second District — which encompasses several blocks of South Taney — and the coalition has periodically sought feedback from Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who represents that district. The group is “actively organizing” in North Taney, as well, Keys said. It has also run an online survey to come up with suggestions for a new street name.
A spokesperson for Johnson said he is “open to introducing legislation after he feels a thorough and inclusive community process has been completed.”
In recent weeks, said spokesperson Vincent Thompson, the office “has received emails on both sides from South Taney Street(s) residents and neighbors — some in support of the name change and some in strong opposition.”
Council President Darrell Clarke “doesn’t oppose the effort, but we’re not involved or engaged at this point,” spokesperson Joe Grace said. “Renaming a city street is a fairly elaborate process.” Portions of Taney Street run through the districts represented by Clarke and Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr.
Jones issued a statement in support of renaming: “I look forward to working with the coalition on finding a new name and supporting the necessary legislation to rename the street.”
One hurdle for the volunteer-led effort is simply that, when it comes to demonstrating community support for changing a street name, “there’s no set process for doing this,” Keys said.
“Thorough and inclusive have been our mission from Day One,” he said. “So the challenge is, what’s the bar?”
The coalition recently published a report summing up months of work to gather feedback from residents, including holding a virtual town hall and surveying neighbors last December.
Organizers advertised the survey by leaving two rounds of door hangers on homes on Taney Street, or within a block of the street, in the Second District. Participants could take the survey online, or call a number to leave a voice message. In total, 165 people responded, and 51 of them lived on or near Taney Street, according to the coalition’s report.
Keys said he did not have the total number of households on the South Taney blocks “to know exactly how effective our outreach has been.” Response rates to the survey could have been affected by whether or not someone is active online, he said, and the pandemic brought its own challenges to outreach.
The results among those who did answer: 96% of all respondents favored changing the street’s name, and 89% of the residents living on or near Taney approved of changing the name.
“Taney Street is my home, but I am embarrassed by its roots in hate and White Supremacy,” one respondent said on the survey.
“My block is diverse and vibrant, and the exact opposite of what Justice Taney stood for,” another participant cited in the report. “My neighbors deserve better.”
Keys acknowledged a spectrum of opposition to a renaming. “We’ve gotten some really awful, racist hate mail from organizing this,” he said.
Others, he said, have indicated they are against it for three main reasons: They don’t like changing things in general, the logistics are hard, or that “we have bigger priorities” than this issue.
To questions about logistics, and changing addresses on official documents, “We recognize that will absolutely entail some effort on the part of residents,” Keys said. The group has posted information online about how mail forwarding works through the postal service, along with a list of parties residents may need to notify about an address change.
“That’s a small price to pay to take down a monument of racism that’s stood for 163 years,” Keys said.