U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney was on the wrong side of history. When he wrote for the majority in the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision that Black Americans “had no rights that the white man was bound to respect,” he attempted to put the brakes on a movement begun decades before. This movement began after the American Revolution, when states like Pennsylvania outlawed slavery (albeit gradually) and granted rights to their citizens, broadly defined. It accelerated in the 1830s, when Black men began meeting in conventions to demand an expansion of these rights. When Taney wrote Black people out of American citizenship, he stood for a white supremacy that sought to stop this movement in its tracks.
The center of gravity for this civil rights movement was Philadelphia. So when, a year after the Dred Scott decision, the mayor decided to name a street Taney Street, after a man who was convinced that Black people were undeserving of the most basic human rights, it was most certainly intended as a provocation. Keeping Taney’s name on that street today, in the midst of a new civil rights movement, is unconscionable. Particularly when there are so many good alternatives — namely, Philadelphians who were in sync with the sentiments of their generation and represent the aspirations of ours.
People like Caroline Le Count.
Le Count was 15 years old when the Civil War began, a student at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth (which eventually became Cheyney University). Caroline graduated top of her class in May 1863; two months later, the Union army defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg — a battle that Le Count’s male classmates had been eager to take part in, but who were rebuffed by the state’s white leaders. Among them was Octavius V. Catto. Perhaps they knew each other then or met later; eventually, they got engaged. Before they had the chance to marry, Catto was murdered by a white thug on Election Day 1871. Le Count was 25 years old when she buried her fiancé. She had already seen a lot in her young life: a war, the end of slavery, and the extension of the rights of citizenship to Black Americans in 1868.
Le Count had done more than witness these changes — she had helped to make them possible. As a young teacher, she helped desegregate the city’s streetcars, a campaign that resulted in an 1867 law integrating public transit in the state. Le Count and other Black women pressured legislators to pass the law by defying the segregation order and refusing to give up their seats (some call her Philly’s Rosa Parks). Once the new law was passed, when a conductor wouldn’t let her on the streetcar, Le Count brought a copy of the law to a police officer, who arrested the driver.
“As a young teacher, she helped desegregate the city’s streetcars, a campaign that resulted in an 1867 state law integrating public transit in the state.”
Her greatest gift to the city was the decades Le Count spent advocating for Black educational excellence. At age 22, Le Count became principal of a school, a position she held proudly for nearly 50 years. Caroline took the Philadelphia Board of Education to task when they criticized Black teachers for the poor performance of their students, reminding them that Black teachers were held to higher performance standards than white teachers. Le Count understood how important it was for Black students to be taught by highly qualified Black teachers, and advocated for their appointments.
When she died in 1923, Caroline Le Count was well-known in the city for her work as a civil rights activist and an advocate for Black educators. She was also a role model to thousands of children whose minds were opened to the possibilities presented by her life and teachings.
Renaming Taney Street in honor of Caroline Le Count would be a small way for the city to honor her work. And it would align Philadelphia with its aspiration to become a city that recognizes the potential in and respects the humanity of all its residents. Let’s put the city on the right side of history.
Judith Giesberg is the Robert M. Birmingham Chair in the Humanities and professor of history at Villanova University.