How Philly's Little Leaguers Reclaimed "Taney" From America's Shame

You may never hear from Mo'ne Davis again. But even so, she and her teammates have already accomplished something amazing: They've taken back the name "Taney" from history's shit list. In a wonderful stroke of ironic resonance, the name that now evokes a mixed-race, inner-city little league team that made a lot of people happy for a moment first belonged to the man who declared, on behalf of the United States, that African-Americans weren't people.

The Taney Dragons take their name from South Taney Street, which runs alongside their ballfield on the bank of the Schuylkill River, on the overlapping fringes of Center City and South Philadelphia. And Taney Street itself, reports Ryan Briggs for Hidden City Philadelphia, is named for one of the most infamous men in the history of American race relations: Roger Brooke Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the man who wrote the majority decision in the Dred Scott case.

A feature in the late Philadelphia Evening Bulletin called "Why's It Called" encouraged curious readers to ask questions of the paper, who would investigate the origins of their inquisitiveness. One such request, by an M.J. Tanney, no less, appeared in the August 27, 1976 edition of the Bulletin, confirming the Chief Justice, who'd studied at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, as the source of "Taney Street." The City's Department of Records' file indicates its first use, in Fairmount, in 1858, one year after the Dred Scott ruling.

To return to ninth-grade history, Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857 was a monumental and monumentally shameful Supreme Court decision. Scott, a slave, had sued for his and his family's freedom because his owner had taken him to free states and territories. By a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that African Americans, both slave and free, were not citizens, could never be citizens, and therefore did not even have the standing to sue.

Taney's decision was inflammatory, divisive, and needlessly expansive, and led more or less directly to the Civil War. He wrote:

T]he men who framed this declaration were great men — high in literary acquirements — high in their sense of honor, and incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting. They perfectly understood the meaning of the language they used, and how it would be understood by others; and they knew that it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace the negro race, which, by common consent, had been excluded from civilized Governments and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery. They spoke and acted according to the then established doctrines and principles, and in the ordinary language of the day, no one misunderstood them. The unhappy black race were separate from white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property, and when the claims of the owner or the profit of the trader were supposed to need protection.

[...]

No one of that race had ever migrated to the United States voluntarily; all of them had been brought here as articles of merchandise. The number that had been emancipated at that time were but few in comparison with those held in slavery; and they were identified in the public mind with the race to which they belonged, and regarded as a part of the slave population rather than the free.

It is obvious that they were not even in the minds of the framers of the Constitution when they were conferring special rights and privileges upon the citizens of a State in every other part of the Union.

Indeed, when we look to the condition of this race in the several States at the time, it is impossible to believe that these rights and privileges were intended to be extended to them.

How Philly's Little Leaguers Reclaimed "Taney" From America's Shame

Taney—who freed his own slaves—had very strong opinions on the status of black men and women. As a U.S. attorney, he publicly supported South Carolina's law banning free blacks from entering the state. As chief justice, he wrote a concurring opinion in Prigg v. Pennsylvania that argued, in the strongest terms, the obligation of free states to enforce fugitive slave laws.

There is no evidence that the renaming of Taney street after Roger B. Taney had anything to do with his Dred Scott ruling. It probably had more to do with his having studied in-state. Still, Taney Street—a narrow one-way street that proceeds north through Philadelphia in fits and starts, never existing for more than a few blocks at a time—gave its name to a playground, which expanded into a rec center with a baseball diamond, which played host to a youth baseball association founded in 1994. Names have a funny way of going rogue.

"All the neighbors called it Taney Field because it's on Taney Street," league co-founder Ellen Siegel said. "I don't think anyone really knows the real name. If you ask anyone where Markward [Recreation Center] is they'll say, 'what?'"

Interestingly, the name Taney came to represent integration long before it lent its name to a little league team. Tucked away as an almost extraterritorial slice of neutral ground during the height of the "white flight" era of Philadelphia and the clashes between the outgoing blue-collar Irish and the incoming African Americans, the playground and park was always a safe space. Hidden City Philadelphia:

Meanwhile, street fights between the white "Taney Gang" and black youths moving into the neighborhoods to the east and south were so common that the local Catholic school changed its hours to be out of sync with the mostly black public schools nearby. Schuylkill teens enforced de facto segregation at the public pool near 25th and South Streets.

But the Taney Playgound, if old newspaper reports are to be believed, somehow persisted as the one piece of neutral ground in a troubled pocket of the city. A 1967 report, describing racial tension at the nearby pool, notes that "oddly enough, the playground at 26th and Taney is integrated." The Bulletin reporter that was attacked on his doorstep wrote a column in 1980 about the shiftless "kids" terrorizing his adopted neighborhood (and doorstep), wrote "Turf defines Schuylkill… [Taney Playground] is several blocks away, but the kids rarely go there. It is crowded with white folks from Center City, black folks from South Philly, business folks from nearby offices. The kids cannot control it, so they stay away."

Taney's ballfield again finds itself in the shifting borderlands of the city's sociogeography. The neighborhood is solidly well-to-do now, the area having long gone to the gentrification and Comcastification spreading down from the north. And again, the ballfield is the outlier—Taney's all-star team, which contributes most of the LLWS roster, draws from all around the city, not just the neighborhood.

That's how it's supposed to be, said Siegel, the league's co-founder. When the association was formed, it was very specifically designed to be "inclusive." That meant kids from different racial and economic backgrounds, and yes, it meant fielding a co-ed team. Had someone somehow told Roger B. Taney about Mo'ne Davis and Zion Spearman and the Dragons team bearing his name, he probably would have been a little surprised. And perhaps moreso by the fact that they made it to the country's final three, only eliminated by an all-black team from Chicago.

Not long after Roger B. Taney declared black people to be property, he wrote to a friend that American opinion would come around to his side, that the "public mind" was not "in a condition to listen to reason." He died in 1864, 14 months before the 13th Amendment invalidated his Dred Scott decision, and 150 years before his name made the news for something better than he deserved.

H/t to Jeffrey, who asked the question, and to Ryan Briggs, who had already answered it.