Taking Back Taney: All-Star Little Leaguers Make Good A Sullied Name

August 20, 2014 |  by  |  Vantage  |  , ,

 

Field of dreams: the Taney Dragons' home ballfield | Photo: Bradley Maule

Field of dreams: the Taney Dragons’ home ballfield | Photo: Bradley Maule

The breakout success of the Taney Dragons that rocketed an underdog team to the final round of the Little League World Series has captured the collective imagination of a famously divided city and, increasingly, the nation as a whole. But who, or what, is a Taney? Starting with last month’s Best of Philly issue, in which Philadelphia magazine’s Liz Spikol recalled her encounters with the Taney youths of her Center City childhood, the word has bubbled to the surface of the Philadelphia lexicon. Wrapped up in the name, now splashed across ESPN chyrons nationwide, is a long and complex history that traces changing demographics and social attitudes of Philadelphia and are, in a way, embodied by the team itself.

The Taney Dragons have drawn the support from all over Philadelphia; here, signs at Palumbo Rec Center and a home in Bella Vista cheer them on | Photos: Bradley Maule

The Dragons take their name from South Taney Street, which runs parallel to their home field at the Schuylkill Pocket Veterans Memorial Field, in Center City. Originally opened as Barnwell Street in 1863 and later renamed to reflect its alignment with North Taney Street, in Fairmount, it was a narrow cut in a fast-growing section of the city, then known as “Schuylkill.” Characterized a shanty town, Schuylkill was then inhabited by off-the-boat Irish immigrants who came to work coal piers on the river or as domestic servants for the mansions surrounding nearby Rittenhouse Square.

Although a Northern victory in the Civil War was just a year away, Taney Street was ironically named* in honor of Maryland-native Roger Brooke Taney, the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, an ardent slaveowner, and an architect of the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857. The infamous ruling enshrined in law the notion that black Americans were inferior to white Americans and invalidated the so-called Missouri Compromise, determining that it was unconstitutional for emerging US territories to outlaw slavery.

*A feature in the late Philadelphia Evening Bulletin called “Why’s It Called” encouraged curious readers to ask questions of the paper, who would investigate the origins of their inquisitiveness. One such request, by an M.J. Tanney, no less, appeared in the August 27, 1976 edition of the Bulletin, confirming the Chief Justice, who’d studied at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, as the source of “Taney Street.” The City’s Department of Records’ file indicates its first use, in Fairmount, in 1858, one year after the Dred Scott ruling.

Justice Roger B. Taney, Supreme Court | Photo: Mathew Brady, via the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Justice Roger B. Taney, Supreme Court | Photo: Mathew Brady, via the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

It was a draconian decision that forever stained America’s moral standing and is often regarded by historians as making a military solution to “the Slavery Question” all but unavoidable. Taney now seems like an improbable figure to honor in a former Union city like Philadelphia, much less one to name a street after. But the year the street was opened was also a year that New York City was consumed by violent draft riots, street protests against compulsory military service in the Union Army, which disproportionately impacted the working-class Irish who could rarely afford the $300 ($5,746 today) commutation fee paid by wealthy gentlemen to avoid combat. Blacks were viewed as both the cause of the war and competitors for industrial work, and were frequent targets of violence.

Although Philadelphia did not experience full-scale rioting, many in Irish wards like Schuylkill (which purportedly had the highest concentration of Irish during the time of the Civil War), were sympathetic—The New York Times reported that a street gang from the neighborhood, known as the “Schuylkill Rangers,” traveled to New York to participate in the unrest. Eventually, federal troops were brought into the city to prevent a potential uprising in Philadelphia.

Schuylkill, which garnered the nickname “Devil’s Pocket,” remained an insular anachronism of “Old Philadelphia” into the 1960s, largely retaining its working class identity even though the coal yards that brought many laborers to Taney Street and surrounding blocks had long since closed. City planners targeted a portion of the former Donaghy Coal Yard, near 26th and Pine streets, as the site for the Taney Playground, which opened in June 1960. The sliver of land would be expanded in 1963 to include a recreation building and tennis courts, and in 1979, the ballfield that is now home to the Taney Dragons. The rec center complex would eventually be renamed in honor of William “Billy” Markward, a legendary Roman Catholic High School basketball coach that drew a number of all-star protégés from the mean streets of the Schuylkill neighborhood.

Taney Street, long the home of Irish pride in the Devil's Pocket | Photo: Bradley Maule

Taney Street, long the home of Irish pride in the Devil’s Pocket | Photo: Bradley Maule

But by the 1970s, with working-class Irish plying what little industry was left in the area or trickling to the suburbs, the neighborhood was in serious flux. Numerous articles from the time made sport out of alternatively describing both how little or how much the neighborhood had changed. The earliest waves of gentrification pressing in from Rittenhouse Square caused tension—the construction of a rolling park at the north end of the playground was viewed with suspicion as a magnet for wealthy types and crime. An Evening Bulletin reporter that moved to the neighborhood described being beaten up by local teens on the steps of his house.

Meanwhile, street fights between the white “Taney Gang” and black youths moving into the neighborhoods to the east and south were so common that the local Catholic school changed its hours to be out of sync with the mostly black public schools nearby. Schuylkill teens enforced de facto segregation at the public pool near 26th and South Streets.

But the Taney Playgound, if old newspaper reports are to be believed, somehow persisted as the one piece of neutral ground in a troubled pocket of the city. A 1967 report, describing racial tension at the nearby pool, notes that “oddly enough, the playground at 26th and Taney is integrated.” The Bulletin reporter that was attacked on his doorstep wrote a column in 1980 about the shiftless “kids” terrorizing his adopted neighborhood (and doorstep), wrote “Turf defines Schuylkill… [Taney Playground] is several blocks away, but the kids rarely go there. It is crowded with white folks from Center City, black folks from South Philly, business folks from nearby offices. The kids cannot control it, so they stay away.”

Taney “Major League” all star game at Taney-Markward Rec Center, June 14. About half the players in this game comprise the Taney team now at the Little League World Series, including Kai Cummings, at second base | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Today, the neighborhood is peaceful, although what remained of the working-class Irish community has been almost entirely consumed by the growing wealth of Center City. But Taney Playground is still the neutral ground. It’s a thriving hodgepodge of uses—baseball, tennis, basketball, a playground, a park for humans and another for dogs—that reflects the history of conflicting visions for the tiny neighborhood.

Over the last 20 years, primarily under the leadership of the late coach Bob Hyland, the Taney Youth Baseball Association emerged as a league where talent trumped the divisions of race and class, producing diverse teams of Dragons drawn from across Philadelphia. This is the legacy that has drawn the players almost overnight fame as they move towards the final of the Little League World Series.

Along little Taney Street, every row house sports a Taney Dragon sign on their front door. History books may remember the name as one shared by the grandfather of segregation, but words, like neighborhoods, can change. It means something else printed on rusted street sign that overlooks the ballfield or splashed across the home uniforms of star pitcher Mo’Ne Davis and her teammates. Taney is a word that has taken on its own meaning, a word that’s become a symbol of hope.

About the author

Ryan Briggs is a journalist who lives in West Philadelphia. A veteran of several economic development agencies in Philadelphia, Ryan has contributed to the Philadelphia City Paper, Next City and other fine, local publications. Follow him on Twitter at @rw_briggs.

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17 Comments


  1. The question remains, though: why do we pronounce Taney the way we do? Chief Justice Taney’s name is pronounced “Tawney”….

  2. This brings together so many threads that were floating around my head. I know well people who late in the 1960s began gentrifying that area – the Taney Street Gang were especially unwelcoming. We can be grateful to this stellar team.

  3. The Taneys were not a “gang.” That term implies formal initiation and membership. They were members if a particular ethnic community who did not like that gentrification was changing their neighborhood. Many in the community were racist. And the article is wrong to the extent it credits articles saying the playground was integrated in the 70s. It was not; it was not safe for a black kid in Taney then, and it was not much safer for kids from Center City. (The article otherwise is right on the mark.) Members of the Taney community used to tear down the hoops rather than have integrated basketball. But times have certainly changed, and the park couldn’t be more of the fabled melting pot many Americans aspire toward. And that’s a good thing.

  4. You didn’t include the part where Taney was known as Judy Garland park, and was a gay cruising ground in the 80s…

  5. Nahmean, Taney was never known as Judy Garland Park. Only the part of the park that was a late addition to what is now Skullykill River Park on 25th st in the late 70s was known as,Judy Garland Park. The train tracks around there also used to be a gay cruising area at that time. It ended after Taney families came through one evening en masse and rousted everyone out of he park in the mid or late 1980s.

  6. If you are concerned that a wonderfully diverse group of children and their parents have to play at a place named after Roger Taney, please consider signing my petition to change the name of the playground. http://chn.ge/1rqEtRt

    • Dear Karen,

      I understand that sentiment. After the regular and vicious attacks my buddies and I suffered there during high school (friends still carry scarred faces from Worm’s (that was his name) carpet-cutter knife), when we also learned who Taney was, the irony was not lost on us. But part of the real power of that team and those black kids who would not have been able to walk down Taney Street in our day, is that they did it with “Taney” scrawled across their chest. I think having the Taney label on the playground is an nice reminder that we have transcended Taney’s decision. We cannot run away from our past. The Declaration of Independence was written by a guy who owned and had affairs with his slaves, and who also wanted the Declaration to have strong anti-slavery figure. All that we have to live with and we have to live with Taney, if we want to move forward. I think so anyway.

      Best regards,
      Marko

  7. Karen Weaver, the name of the playground is not, officially, Taney. It is Markward — the City name for the recreation center. But people have called it Taney for years simply because that is the name of the abutting street. Your petition should focus, if anything, on the name of the street. But the sports league, having now become famous because of the team in the little league World Series, is also named Taney (for the same reason — the flagship field is at Taney street). Isn’t there poetic justice in the name Taney now being associated with an ethnically and gender diverse team? I bet more people in the United States now associate Taney with Mo’Ne Davis than they do the Supreme Court Justice (who was also Secretary of War and Attorney General). Taney was probably one of the very first highly prominent Catholics in the country. He served the country for decades. Washington and Jefferson were both major slave owners who wanted no part in eliminating slavery from this country. But somehow we are able to reconcile those difficult facts when we honor them for their roles in establishing the nation. For sure, Taney (and the majority of the SC of that time) screwed the goat with Dred Scott. But Taney is part of the nation’s history, whose name in a weird way has been “reborn” through the success of our team. How American is that?

    • Thanks for that info, Lewis.

      I was aware that it was an “informal” designation. And I do see the viewpoint of it being a “rebirth” of the name. I still believe that he had a pernicious affect on racism in this country, and his decision ultimately led to the Civil War. I also believe the Dred Scott decision still reverberates today in a little known town, Ferguson, Missouri. What message do we send in allowing these types of public figures to remain prominent even today?

      Education is key here–I’d like for us to take great consideration to the impact that these names have on African Americans. Philadelphia has a long history of naming buildings and parks after whites.

      It’s one thing to live your own life within your own set of values–quite another to impose your bias on an entire nation. And quite another to continually hold them up as a role model.

      Taney is a part of history–but the name needs to fade away.

      I do appreciate the dialogue–thank you!

      • Karen, as an African American female and historian, I can appreciate that you want to change the name of the team/league/street. However, I’m with Lewis on this. It is an absolutely fabulous piece of poetic justice in that this name has now become synonymous with an integrated kids baseball team and with a Black girl in particular. Taney would probably roll over in his grave…but I digress.

        Racism doesn’t go away just because of a name change. It has to start with how people raise their children and what they say and how they behave in front of those children. It has to start with positive media portrayals of people of all ethnicities and not just a few stupid stereotypes (the Black man in the buddy comedy or the Black woman as the loud-mouthed sassy type or video vixen)

        Just my two cents…
        Have a great day!

        • You are so right…an awareness of our history helps, too. Just because it has “always been” doesn’t mean it “always will be”… 🙂

          The irony is amazing…thanks for responding.

  8. There was never a gang called the Taney gang. How would I know? because I grew up there.
    Was there racial animosity? Yes but it wasn’t one sided.
    I never heard of a Center City kid being beat up in all my years living there. Ask there former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News Gil Spencer if his kid was beat up.
    Ps. The people that lived there had more class than any of the snobs living there now.

    • Ed your response is perfect…..they tried to paint a sad picture of Schuylkill.
      For those of us who lived there….we know better.

    • Dear Ed & Billy,

      I think there must have been good people there. You guys sound like you got a lot out of it. And I saw in another article how one woman said that in the house she grew up in, they hosted and fed homeless guests. But unfortunately, “Worm” and his cohorts did feel that protecting their Taney turf required attacking black people and people who hung with them. We weren’t from Center City–rather from West Philly. But I can tell you after a particularly ugly night of face carving by some kids living on Taney, we went down the next morning to look for the kids and families in the daylight to talk to them. The cops, who were hanging out at a block party on Taney, chased away the black father of my black friend. His kid lost a ton of blood at the hands of Worm and the other kids whom we called the “Taneys.” Probably is snobbier now. Like Greenwich Village and a lot of other formerly tight-knit neighborhoods. But, one hopes, less dangerous and violent.

      Best,
      Marko

  9. As a kid growing-up in Schuylkill in the 70’s the neighborhood offered a tight-nit family environment. Some of the best 4th of July Street Block Parties would last all weekend. Street fights happened between the kids living in the neighborhood…yes it could be a though area. But I would not change a thing about my childhood days on Tany Street…Schuylkill was one area of Philly where graffiti did not scar the walls with silly spray paint…..Schuylkill teens enforced that. I love my childhood memories and Im a proud supporter of the Tany Dragons.

  10. I am sure it was a close knit community with good people, but I know gay people who were repeatedly bashed for “gentrifying efforts” in the area in the late 60s.

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