Joy Taney grew up knowing she was the descendant of a man who had played an important role in shaping U.S. history — and that he was no one to be proud of.
Taney, who lives in West Philadelphia, is the great-great-great-great niece of Roger B. Taney, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision that Black Americans could never be U.S. citizens and that they “had no rights that the white man was bound to respect.”
The 34-year-old painter said she feels a personal responsibility to help make sure the next chapter of U.S. history is one of respect, acceptance, and equality. That’s why, on Sunday, she joined a door-knocking campaign in the Fairmount neighborhood organized by a group of activists seeking to rename Taney Street.
“It’s nice to think that just being kind to each other is enough, but when our country has the history it does … we have to be active,” Taney said. “Good thoughts and kind words are not enough.”
Taney Street was named for the justice a year after the Dred Scott decision and runs non-consecutively between 26th and 27th Streets the length of the city, through seven neighborhoods and three council districts. Members of the Rename Taney Coalition say change is clearly needed, though the task won’t be easy.
Renaming Taney Street will require buy-in from residents in diverse neighborhoods, including Grays Ferry in South Philadelphia, Fitler Square, Fairmount, and portions of North Philadelphia. The change would require an act from City Council, and before a bill can be introduced, there must be an agreed-upon new name.
“Part of that is bringing people together across these different neighborhoods who generally don’t get together,” said Ben Keys, a Taney Street resident and coalition organizer. He said he is optimistic that the social unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd will “galvanize” the community to take action.
A community engagement report by the coalition found that 89% of people surveyed who lived on or near Taney Street supported a name change, though it is unclear in the report what portion of people who live on the street — and who would be the most significantly affected — supported the move.
Those who did not support the renaming cited logistics, such as updating addresses for mail and driver’s licenses, according to the report.
Getting consensus on a new name will require a lot of outreach, Keys said.
On Sunday, he and a half-dozen activists in grey “Rename Taney” T-shirts canvassed Taney Street in Fairmount, handing out a survey for residents to suggest a new name for the street. People can also submit a recommendation or support an existing option on the group’s website, renametaney.com.
Some early ideas include Friendship Street, Freedom Street or Love Street. Other options would rename the street for a different public figure of significance to Philadelphia, such as:
Julian Abele, the African American architect whose work included the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Sadie Alexander, the first African American to receive a doctorate in economics and the first woman to earn a degree from University of Pennsylvania’s law school
Billy Markward, a coach who integrated high school basketball in Philadelphia
Michelle Hiett, who owns a home at the far northern end of Taney Street, in Allegheny West, said she would like to see the street renamed for Harriet Tubman.
Hiett joined the Rename Taney Coalition to help spread the word to others who, like her, were not aware of the street’s history. She said she hopes the group’s efforts will lead to bigger, more meaningful change.
“It can be the thing that lights the pilot,” Hiett said.
David Ware, 44, said he wasn’t aware of Taney’s history until he answered the door at his wife’s home in the 800 block of Taney Street and took a flier from a coalition member Sunday afternoon.
“I think renaming it is moving forward,” he said.
A few houses down, Linda Cheeseman, 51, said a new name would take some getting used to — she’s lived on the street her whole life.
“I grew up on Taney Street, but to do the research and hear what I hear … you have to change it,” she said.
Cheeseman said she isn’t concerned about the possibility of having to update her mail or driver’s license, but said she thinks it’s important for people who live on the street — especially those who have lived there a long time — to have a say in choosing a new name.
The group will also need to get support from the City Council members who represent the districts through which Taney Street passes, since a name change requires Council approval. While any council member can introduce a bill, legislation is typically introduced by council members whose districts are most directly affected.
The street passes through districts represented by Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, Council President Darrell L. Clarke, and Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr.
Clarke “doesn’t oppose the effort, but we’re not involved or engaged at this point,” said Joe Grace, a spokesperson for the Council president.
A representative for Jones did not respond to a request for comment.
“Councilmember Johnson supports renaming the southern portion of Taney Street, which consists of about three blocks in the Second Council District,” said Vincent Thompson, Johnson’s communications director.
Thompson said Johnson is not ready to introduce legislation renaming the street because the coalition has not yet proposed a replacement name.
Keys said the group hopes to narrow down name suggestions to a panel of finalists, from which residents can make a final selection by early fall.
Getting out to meet Taney Street neighbors and talking to them individually about the issue is an important, albeit time consuming, step toward educating people about Taney, understanding critics’ concerns about a name change and opening a bigger conversation about how to address systemic racism, Joy Taney said.
“Sometimes creating a better world can be tedious,” she said.