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In Philly, ‘Taney’ means racial togetherness. Don’t let dubious history change that street name

by Mitchell A. Orenstein, For the Inquirer.

August 7, 2018

In Philly, ‘Taney’ means racial togetherness.

A student at Temple University has proposed to rename Taney Street in Philadelphia.  He alleges that it is named after Roger B. Taney, the infamous Supreme Court justice who authored the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which held that blacks were not U.S. citizens and helped spark the Civil War. This proposal echoes recent efforts to remove monuments to Confederate leaders who fought to preserve the institution of slavery.

Despite that noble purpose, I would caution against rushing to change the name of Taney Street, because in Philadelphia, the name Taney stands for the power of diversity, not racism. Moreover, researchers have found no evidence that the street was named for the ignominious Supreme Court justice.

In 2014, the Taney Youth Baseball Association, named after Taney Street, a small street running north-south between 26th and 27th streets, where its home field is located, famously sent a team to the Little League World Series.  In contrast to most Little League teams, which tend to be racially and ethnically homogeneous, reflecting housing patterns in the United States, Taney's Philadelphia team was multi-racial and multi-ethnic – and multi-gender.  Its star pitcher, Mo'ne Davis, became the youngest athlete to ever grace the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.

As one commentator wrote in his blog on SB Nation at the time, "The team is a great microcosm of what city baseball should be.  Scratch that, a microcosm of what all baseball should be.  The team is made up of a multi-racial group of kids from different parts of the city and different walks of city life.  Add in that they have a girl who is their pitcher, the only team in the state's top 8 teams to have a girl.  This is what baseball should be everywhere."

Mayor Nutter organized a parade for the team down Broad Street when it came in third in the Little League World Series, stating, "The Taney Dragons have really taken the city by fire."

The diversity of this Taney team reflected not only the city of Philadelphia, but the values that the Taney Youth Baseball Association lives by every day.  Taney cultivates a love of baseball among nearly 1,000 young people each year in our beautiful, rich, diverse community.  Many parents list Taney baseball as one of the things they love best about living in Philadelphia.

To rid the city of the Taney name, which symbolizes racial togetherness, because of a desire to eliminate symbols of racism, would be deeply ironic.

It would be doubly ironic because research conducted by journalists and members of the Taney Youth Baseball Association has found not one shred of contemporary documentary evidence to suggest that Taney Street was in fact named for the ignominious judge.

In 1858, more than 1,000 streets in Philadelphia were renamed to eliminate duplicate street names after the city was consolidated from independent municipalities.  As part of that larger project, one small block, called "Minor St.," was renamed "Taney St.," but there is no mention as to why.  No historical plaque.  No newspaper article from the time.  No city record.  Nothing.

All we have are rumors and associations, some of which have been reported in the news media, all of which originated more than 100 years after the name change.  The first reference was a 1976 Evening Bulletin side box titled "Why It's Called," which seeks to answer a reader's question about the origin of Taney Street.  However, the unnamed author provides the wrong year when the street was named, and no source citation. Other journalists have relied on this article to repeat the claim.  But this article has never been supported by even one piece of contemporary documentary evidence about the name's meaning.

The strongest evidence typically cited by those who see a connection is circumstantial – its timing.  The street was renamed in 1858, one year after the Dred Scott decision.  Even so, there are many reasons to doubt whether this street was named after Roger B. Taney.  He was alive in 1858, and Philadelphia typically does not name streets after living people, but rather in memoriam.  Taney had no connection to Philadelphia.  He was from Baltimore.  Another justice who voted with him on the decision, Robert Cooper Grier, did have connections to Philadelphia.  However, no Grier Street exists and no monument to him is found anywhere in the city.

Ridding our nation of symbols of racism and hate is a noble cause.  But it would be a shame to change the name and meaning of Taney Street and mar a vibrant and living part of Philadelphia's history based on nothing but speculation.

Mitchell A. Orenstein is a professor at University of Pennsylvania and a veteran of many seasons coaching for Taney Youth Baseball Association. 







Taney Youth Baseball Association   -   744 South Street Box 133, Philadelphia, PA 19147   -   -   (267) 713-8838