RALEIGH, N.C. — In North Carolina's Supreme Court chamber, above the seat held by the second African American chief justice, hangs a towering painting of a 19th century slave owner and jurist who authored a notorious opinion about the "absolute" rights of slaveholders over the enslaved.
Larger than any other painting in the courtroom, it's a portrait of Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin, who wrote in 1829 that "the power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect."
But Ruffin's place there is now being re-evaluated.
In October 2018, on the same day that a newspaper op-ed urged the removal of Ruffin's portrait, the state Supreme Court named a commission to review the portraits in the building that houses the court — including Ruffin's.
Two African American chief justices have sat on the bench beneath Ruffin's stare: Henry Frye who served as chief justice for about a year from 1999 to 2000 after 16 years as an associate justice; and Cheri Beasley, who was an associate justice for about seven years before she was appointed as chief justice in 2019.
Even as Beasley listened to arguments in August about a repealed law on race and capital punishment — the Racial Justice Act — Ruffin's image loomed over the courtroom.
Ruffin's cruelty was extraordinary even for the antebellum era, the October 2018 op-ed column in The News & Observer of Raleigh asserted. He caned a slave named Bridget for giving him an insolent look and then apologized — not to Bridget, but to Bridget's master for damaging his property, the column's two authors wrote.
"We needn't worry about judging with hindsight: Ruffin behaved viciously even within his context," wrote Eric Muller, a law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Sally Greene, an Orange County commissioner who had written previously about Ruffin. "He went out of his way not just to inflict hardship on enslaved people who happened to cross his path, but also to endow cruelty with the force of law."
The state has more appropriate options than a portrait of Ruffin to hang in such a prominent location, said Frye, 87, who still recalls trying to register to vote on his wedding day in 1956 and being told he had failed the Jim Crow literacy test.
Although Ruffin also penned some much-admired decisions on commercial law, he's best remembered as the author of one of the most infamous rulings on the rights of slave owners, Frye said.
"It isn't the kind of thing we would want to put where everybody has to look at it when they go to the Supreme Court," Frye said in a phone interview. "I think we could find somebody else that would be better."
Beasley declined to say whether she thinks the Ruffin portrait should be removed. "I am delighted that the Supreme Court of today is not the like the Supreme Court of 200 years ago," she said in a telephone interview. "I am certain that Chief Justice Ruffin could never imagine the Supreme Court would be configured as it is today. And he would never imagine it could be led by an African American woman."
Ruffin, who served on the North Carolina Supreme Court from 1829 to 1852, overturned the conviction of slave owner John Mann for shooting a slave named Lydia in the back in Chowan County. A jury had convicted Mann of assault for shooting Lydia, who fled after refusing his orders.
In ruling for Mann, Ruffin wrote that a slave's obedience "is the consequence only of uncontrolled authority over the body." A slave owner's power over the slave, he concluded is absolute.
By the time Ruffin issued his decision, North Americans had engaged in human trafficking for more than 200 years, starting with the first slave ship sailing to what would become the United States. That ship brought about 20 slaves to the British colony at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.
Over the next two centuries, more than 300,000 men, women and children were forcibly brought to what is now the U.S. from Africa, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.
Until the past few years, Ruffin's reputation remained mostly positive. In 1936, the dean of the Harvard Law School, Roscoe Pound, listed Ruffin as one of the top 10 American judges. His decisions in commercial law, especially railroads, were an essential part of North Carolina's economic development.
In addition to the portrait, a statue of Ruffin stands in the former Supreme Court building that now houses the state Court of Appeals.
The commission on the court's paintings was originally told to report by Dec. 31, 2019, but that was later changed to the end of 2020.
In the meantime, the review has expanded to evaluate all the court's artwork, about 130 pieces in all, said Sharon Gladwell, spokeswoman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
The commission's criteria for keeping artwork — and whether it even intends to banish any — aren't known. But the members will find images of more justices who at least owned slaves, such as Thomas Settle Jr., an associate justice from 1872 to 1876. Settle owned 29 slaves in 1860 but also supported early adoption of the 14th amendment, according to the state online l ibrary.