The Politics of Public Memory at UNC, in Orange County, and in North Carolina

A week from today (11/16), newly reelected council member Sally Greene (congrats, Sally!!) and I will host a day-long conference at UNC that returns attention to the oft-debated question of how we remember, and why we continue to honor, some of our most checkered ancestors.

The ancestor in question is Thomas Ruffin, the pride of Hillsborough and of UNC (and of the state generally). Ruffin was Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court for most of the three decades leading up to the Civil War and a UNC trustee for 42 years. Scholars have placed him on par with John Marshall as a jurist. There's a dormitory that bears his name on the UNC campus, and his imposing statue guards the front door to the North Carolina Court of Appeals building in Raleigh.

He was also a slave trader and the author of the infamous decision in State v. Mann, which held that a slaveowner had to enjoy "absolute mastery" over the body of his slave, even to the point of willfully shooting the slave in the back. Ruffin's opinion has become one of the central texts in the contemporary study of the law of slavery in the American South -- but it has done little to tarnish Ruffin's reputation and memory at UNC, in Orange County, or in the state.

The conference that Sally and I are running will feature scholars from across the region and around the country, as well as a sitting appellate judge, James A. Wynn, Jr. We'll be considering, from various angles and perspectives, the difficult questions of how we remember our local past and of why our acts of commemoration matter to the politics of the present and the future. In addition to Judge Wynn, speakers will include legal historians Sanford Levinson, Mark Tushnet, Adrienne Davis, and Al Brophy, historians Laura Edwards and David Lowenthal, and philosopher Bernard Boxill. (And Sally and me.)

The conference, which is co-sponsored by the UNC School of Law, the Center for the Study of the American South, and the UNC Institute for the Arts and Humanities, is free and open to the public. We'll gather in the beautiful chamber of the Dialectic Society on the top floor of New West on the UNC campus at 9:00 a.m. and continue through until about 4:30 (with a break for lunch). All are welcome!



The Dialectic Society has chambers on the top floor of New East. Are there additional chambers in New West or do you have a typo?

The Dialectic Society chambers are on the top floor of New West. The Philanthropic Society has chambers on the top floor of New East. Today the societies hold meetings in a joint senate in the New West chambers.

The Societies are happy to see this interest in one of our most storied alumni senators. Those who attend should also look for Thomas Ruffin's portrait, which still hangs on the Di Society's walls.

Sara Gregory
Di President


The Di chamber is in New West. The Phi chamber is in New East.

I'm in Edenton at the moment doing a little more research for my part of the conference, which will be to talk about the trial of John Mann in the Chowan County Court, the decision that Ruffin overturned. The beautiful old courthouse and court room are restored to their 19th century glory. I have some pictures up.

And we'll have Judge Ruffin's portrait on an easel (loaned to us by the Ackland) at the front of the room for all to admire!

If you want to know more about Ruffin's decision on slavery, go to the Carolina Story: A Virtual Museum of University History. There is a link on the university homepage (, and here is the link to Ruffin: It's in an exhibit on slavery and the university.

Just a note to alert OPers, that Sally and Eric will be the featured guests on WUNC's State of Things on Thursday Nov 15 talking about Ruffin and the conference and related topics. Tune in at noon Thursday.

Sally Greene no doubt saw the irony in admiring the building and its restoration given the likelihood that slave labor built part or all of the courthouse. It is difficult to look upon any ancient building in the Old South and not see work of the bonded.

There lies the problem with tearing down or removing the names, sites and buildings of the checkered past. If we remove the reminders of the past we erase history. On the otherhand it does not seem appropriate not to acknowledge the sins of the past. It is important to remember that we are imposing our standards on folks from the distant past. Remember the good our ancestors were able to achieve but acknowledge their shortcomings.

I don't know a single thing about Ruffin except for what I've read just now on this blog. To answer the question, though, the reason we continue to honor him is exactly what is stated above: "Scholars have placed him on par with John Marshall as a jurist." We honor him for his many years of commitment to the laws of this state. Our society has thankfully gotten rid of the horrid practice of slavery, but that Ruffin himself was a slaveowner does not tarnish his service to the state. Honoring Ruffin for his life's work is not the same as agreeing with the individual details of that work; we honor him because he did the work, not because the work itself was a certain way.

I seem to recall reading a 19th century letter of the Kirklands (who Ruffin intermarried with, from what I also recall) when I was doing research years ago in Wilson Library, where the Kirklands were concerned that Ruffin might obtain some of their slaves upon a certain Kirkland's death (William's?), and that they didn't want him to have any because of how bad he treated his own slaves.

Anyway, perhaps that tidbit of information might be of use to someone someday.


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