NC Supreme Court to remove portrait of chief justice who was a slave owner

Cheri Beasley called the decision to remove Thomas Ruffin from the high court's wall 'a tremendous reflection' of progress made.

The North Carolina Supreme Court has announced plans to remove the portrait of Thomas Ruffin, a former chief justice who was a slave owner, from one of its walls. 

His towering portrait, which currently hangs in the Supreme Court courtroom, will be replaced by the Supreme Court seal. 

North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley (left) called the decision to remove the Thomas Ruffin portrait from its walls “a tremendous reflection of the progress that has been made since the time Chief Justice Ruffin served on the Court.”

The painting of Ruffin’s likeness will be removed after a recommendation by the state’s Advisory Commission on Portraits, which was formed in 2018 after activist groups began their calls for its deletion. 

Ruffin, who owned slaves in the 1800s and served on the North Carolina Supreme Court from 1829 to 1852, firmly believed owners held absolute power over those whom they enslaved. He once wrote slave owners should not be convicted of assault or battery against their human property. 

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Outgoing state Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley, a Black woman, called the decision to remove his portrait “a tremendous reflection of the progress that has been made since the time Chief Justice Ruffin served on the Court.”

“It is important that our courtroom spaces convey the highest ideals of justice,” said Beasley, “and that people who come before our Court feel comfortable knowing that they will be treated fairly.”  

Earlier this year, a smaller portrait of Ruffin was removed from another courthouse, as was his statue from the entrance of the state’s Court of Appeals building, which was once named after him. 

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Ruffin has been described as “particularly brutal in his ownership of slaves.” During his time serving on the North Carolina high court, he overturned the conviction of a slave owner named John Mann, who shot a female slave after she refused his orders. 

According to the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, “In that case, in which an enslaved woman had been shot in the back after fleeing a brutal whipping, Ruffin rejected the notion that a slave owner could be guilty of assault or battery of an enslaved person, writing, ‘The power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect … This discipline belongs to the state of slavery.’”

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