The North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities
(NC CRED) is calling on the North Carolina Supreme Court to remove the
life-sized portrait of former Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin inside its courtroom
as well as the statue of him outside the entrance to NC Court of Appeals.
Thomas Ruffin served as Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court from
1833 to 1852.

“The portrait of Chief Justice Ruffin, larger than all the other
former Justice’s portraits, hangs prominently above the seat of the current
Chief Justice,” says NC CRED’s board chair, James Williams, a retired Public
Defender and well-known civil rights advocate. “Chief Justice Ruffin owned,
trafficked, beat, and legally sanctioned brutality towards enslaved people. Our
Chief Justice today is an African American woman. Surely it’s time to take down
this tribute to our violent and racist past.”

In a letter prepared in collaboration with UNC School of Law
Professor Eric L. Muller, the Commission asserts that Justice Ruffin was “a man
who trafficked in enslaved African Americans for profit, beat them with his own
hands, tore apart their families, and reshaped the law to allow limitless
violence to their bodies.” Ruffin’s opinion for the Supreme Court in the case
of North Carolina v. Mann in 1829 – during which he argued that even when a
slave on loan to another man had “uncontrolled authority over [her] body..” and
“the power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave
perfect” – is considered one of the “most brutal in the entire law of American
slavery.”

The full letter, which was presented to NC Supreme Court Chief
Justice Cheri Beasley, is pasted below.

NC CRED is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization consisting of
nearly 30 criminal justice leaders and stakeholders who share a commitment to
building a more equitable, effective, and humane criminal justice system
throughout the state.

The commission believes that Thomas Ruffin’s record on slavery
and lifetime of callousness and brutality toward enslaved African Americans is
a blight on our state’s legal history and, therefore, his life-sized portrait
and statue should be promptly removed from the places of reverence they now
occupy.

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The North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities
(NC CRED) calls upon the North Carolina Supreme Court to remove the life-sized
portrait of Thomas Ruffin that dominates its courtroom and the life-sized
statue of him that guards the entrance to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

Ruffin was a man who trafficked in enslaved African Americans
for profit, beat them with his own hands, tore apart their families, and
reshaped the law to allow limitless violence to their bodies. Yet his likeness
has been the visual focal point for every visitor to our state’s highest courts
for over a century. The time has come to remove him from this position of
special veneration.

Ruffin, born into a slave-owning Virginia family in 1787, was
not predestined to a path of racial brutality. He left the South to attend
Princeton at the age of sixteen, at a moment when New Jersey was enacting a law
to end slavery. The experience moved him to write home “greatly lamenting” the
“uncommon hard fate” of enslaved people and despairing of “any means by which
it may be ameliorated.” The young Ruffin was asking himself questions about the
morality of slavery that were not uncommon in his generation. Some of his
contemporaries, like Ruffin’s eventual Supreme Court colleague William Gaston,
carried those doubts forward in their lives and acted on them, to the benefit
of the enslaved.

Thomas Ruffin left his doubts behind. He received ten slaves as a wedding gift in 1809 and then continued to acquire more. Plantation life for these men and women was shockingly abusive, and Ruffin knew it. In 1824, for example, a friend alerted him to the “evil and barbarous Treatment of [his] Negroes” by overseers on his plantation, including the “barbecu[ing], pepper[ing]and salt[ing]” of one named Will. Ruffin himself took the rod to an enslaved woman named Bridget for giving him a look he found insolent.

Of course, many men in Ruffin’s circles owned slaves, and
ruthless discipline was not unique to Ruffin’s plantation. But Ruffin also did
something his peers did not: he launched a slave-trading partnership with an
associate named Chambers that bought human beings in the border states and sold
them at a profit in the deep south. By the 1820s, slave trading was hardly the
most reputable of businesses, and Ruffin knew it. A colleague Ruffin invited to
join the partnership in 1822 turned him down flat, saying that the “feelings of
his mind in some measure revolt[ed]” against “the trafic [sic]” in human
beings.

The disrepute of the enterprise did not stop Ruffin from
participating; it simply led him to conceal his role. He drafted the
partnership agreement to require Chambers to carry on the business in his name
alone.

Ruffin was a devoted husband and father, but the family ties of
the African Americans he owned and traded meant nothing to him. When it made
financial sense, he sold husbands away from wives and children away from
parents. Offered $150 for an older enslaved man named Noah who had been with
him for years, Ruffin asked Noah whether he wanted to be sold. He did not; he
was “extremely anxious to spend the remnant of his pilgrimage here on earth in
the society of his beloved better half.” Ruffin sold him off anyway. And the
ledgers of his slave-trading business show sales of many parentless children,
like “Little Charles,” a boy of ten, and his “two sisters younger,” on whom
Ruffin turned a profit of $325 in 1825.

Ruffin inflicted his most grievous injury on enslaved African
Americans in his 1829 opinion for the Supreme Court in the case of North
Carolina v. Mann, unquestionably one of the most brutal in the entire law of
American slavery. A jury in Edenton took the extraordinary step of convicting
John Mann of the crime of assault for shooting an enslaved woman named Lydia in
the back as she ran from his discipline. Mann was not Lydia’s owner; he had
merely rented her for a time. This important fact would have allowed the
Supreme Court to leave his conviction in place. But Judge Ruffin exonerated
Mann. Even as a renter of Lydia, Mann had an “uncontrolled authority over [her]
body” that extended all the way to shooting her. Slavery depended on the total
submission of the slave to the master, Ruffin argued, and “the power of the
master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect.”

The law did not compel this outcome or this way of expressing
it. This is what Thomas Ruffin chose. He claimed to find the Mann case
lamentable, a matter he would have preferred to avoid. A lifetime of
callousness and brutality toward African American slaves suggests otherwise.

Thomas Ruffin’s record on slavery and the rights of African
Americans is a blight on our state’s legal history. Even in the context of his
own time his views and actions were regressive and malign. For these reasons,
NC CRED respectfully requests the removal of Thomas Ruffin’s life-sized
portrait and statue from the places of reverence they now occupy.

Respectfully, 

James E. Williams, Jr., Board Chair 

Stephen Raburn, Executive Director 

North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities