City Life

Op-Ed: Let’s LeCount Taney Out

February 18, 2022 | by Leo Vaccaro and Samaya Brown

Minor Street was renamed Taney Street by the City of Philadelphia in 1858 to honor Justice Roger Brooke Taney, a staunch supporter of white supremacy. | Photo: Michael Bixler

“To know why a particular stretch of land was called thus-and-such is to know something about life–and society–at a particular moment in history,” declared Robert I. Alotta, the historian who published two books on the origins of Philadelphia street names. Challenging for Alotta and troubling for all Philadelphia historians, one single ordinance, “To change the names of certain Streets, Lanes, Courts Alleys, Soc., in the City of Philadelphia,” introduced a whopping 971 street name changes without much explanation or fanfare in 1858. Out of all of those changes, one street name change particularly vexes us today. On page 294 of the Bicking & Guilbert’s city ordinance book it was ordained and announced that Minor Street, north of Coates Street near Fairmount Street (now Avenue), was “hereafter to be called Taney Street,” named after one of the Supreme Court’s most notorious white supremacists. We believe this offensive street name should be changed.

Thanks to the voices of hundreds of Philadelphians, today we have an opportunity to choose a new name for Taney Street that better represents our city and the American belief that all men are created equal–the foundational premise that Justice Roger Brooke Taney rejected. Over the past two years, volunteers of the Rename Taney Coalition went door-to-door from North to South Taney Street polling its residents and engaging the rest of the city through email, social media, and earned media. Ultimately, hundreds of residents participated in a democratic process that voted in favor of renaming the street after Caroline LeCount. It would be a small, but significant step to remove Taney’s name and to replace it with a far more admirable figure of Philadelphia’s history. 

Caroline LeCount was born around 1846 in South Philadelphia to Sarah and James LeCount, a carpenter and a conductor on the Underground Railroad who used to hide fugitive slaves in the coffins he made. Caroline attended Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth, which was the genesis of Cheyney University, the oldest institution of higher learning for African Americans.  After graduating in 1863, she became a teacher at Ohio Street School (later the Octavius V. Catto School) on the 2000 block of Lombard Street, educating the city’s young Black population. In addition to working to improve the lives of her students, Caroline LeCount labored as a civil rights activist. She was a gifted orator and supported the Union during the Civil War as an officer in the Ladies’ Union Association. LeCount is best known for her work trying to desegregate the Philadelphia streetcar system when she confronted a conductor who refused to stop for Black riders, making her Philadelphia’s equivalent of Alabama’s Rosa Parks. Tragedy struck in LeCount’s personal life when her fiancé, the famed Black activist Octavius V. Catto, was assassinated in 1871. Rising above her personal loss and social disadvantages, LeCount later became a school principal before retiring in 1911. Many in Philadelphia are not familiar with her name or extraordinary legacy. 

In 1858, the City chose to honor Taney, then the fifth chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Prior to having a street in Philadelphia named after him, Taney received eponymous honorifics across the country including a Coast Guard revenue cutter, launched in 1833, and a Missouri county in 1837. Taney was born in Maryland 1777 into wealth on a tobacco farm. He became one of the state’s most prominent attorneys before being elected to the Senate in 1812. Taney was a staunch supporter of white supremacy and detested abolitionists. He never lived in Philadelphia. In his most infamous opinion, the Dred Scott v. Sandford case, Taney sought to cool political tensions by ruling that no non-white person could be a citizen of the United States. At the same time that Philadelphia named a street after Taney, newspapers, speeches, and, most famously, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, referenced Taney by name and deed. Those Illinois debates were printed in newspapers across the country, and senatorial candidate Abraham Lincoln used the opportunity to emphasize the terrifying reality of Taney’s decision. Lincoln argued that Taney had come to a haunting conclusion in his attempt to unite the country as not “half free and half slave.” He effectively ruled that the whole country would be a slave holding republic from coast to coast, regardless of the Compromises of 1820 and 1850. Lincoln feared that free states such as Illinois and Pennsylvania would be powerless to stop the spread of slavery into the state’s borders because of Taney’s ruling. Ultimately, Lincoln’s alarm roused many Philadelphians to join the anti-slavery cause of the Civil War. 

An undated portrait of Caroline LeCount–educator, activist, and Philadelphia abolitionist. | Image: Public Domain

So why was Minor Street renamed Taney in 1858? There are two reasons. The first was a natural consequence of the City’s consolidation in 1854. The second was due to the fact that Philadelphia’s political elite agreed with Taney’s view on race.  

Four years before Minor Street was renamed Taney Street, City leaders embarked on an audacious plan to unite the county in the hopes that Philadelphia would become the largest and best-run city in the United States. The patchwork and balkanized city administration was now to be organized and united under one municipal authority. Before the consolidation, new buildings were constructed and whole block were renumbered, creating a confusing and curious system of half numbers. In September 1856, Mayor Richard Vaux signed legislation which brought order to the street numbers and city grid. By October 1857, City Council’s Nomenclature Committee was working on consolidating street names as reported in The Public Ledger.

Researching the actions of the men who signed the ordinance–Common Council President Charles B. Trego, Select Council President G. M. Wharton, Mayor Alexander Henry and the Clerk H. G. Leisenring–we can easily observe their white supremacist leanings. For example, in December 1860, both Trego and Henry were part of an effort to concede to Southern secessionists, offering that they would “submit themselves obediently and cheerfully” to Taney’s Dred Scott decision. As the war waged on, Wharton antagonized Lincoln’s administration, primarily in disagreement with President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during a national emergency (as did Roger Taney in Ex Parte Merryman). Leisenring argued against emancipating slaves with the familiar, racist argument of the time. In Harrisburg he argued that freeing enslaved laborers would mean that “millions of ignorant black slaves, governed almost exclusively by their passions, are let loose to roam over this fair land of ours and drench it in blood.”  These were the words and beliefs of the Philadelphia men who honored Taney in 1858.

We believe that a large reason why racism persists in America is due to the extensive propagation of historical narratives and imagery that focuses primarily on white dominance at the expense of celebrating the stories of all Americans. We want to honor one of our city’s own heroines, a woman who walked through our city’s streets, educated our city’s ancestors, and who worked to unite, rather than divide us. To have a LeCount Street will be one way to commemorate the resilience, power, and beauty of the diverse peoples who live in Philadelphia. It would highlight one of the city’s lesser known daughters who is worthy of our remembrance and admiration.

Removing Taney’s name from our city’s map can help us to build a more equally representative future and would fulfill a democratic, collaborative project that has taken years of hard work.  Unlike the slapdash efforts of municipal government in 1858, our grassroots collective has consulted with residents who live on Taney Street and neighbors throughout the city. We should celebrate this occasion as a moment that positions one of Philadelphia’s unsung African American heroes in a fitting and proper place of honor. No longer would a person of color have to travel or live on a street named after the racist judge who ruled that only whites should be legal citizens in the United States. Indeed, every American and every Philadelphian would be able to hold their head up high with pride on LeCount Street.


About the Author

Leo Vaccaro and Samaya Brown | Leo Vaccaro is an organizer with Rename Taney, a huge fan of Hidden City, and is a high school history teacher with a particular interest in 19th century American history and the history of Philadelphia. | Samaya Brown is a writer and advocate for social change. She works with DiversePro, a company that connects communities with diverse legal representation and volunteers extensively with community based non-profits including the Rename Taney Coalition. She was raised around the world (Army brat) before settling in Philadelphia six years ago and holds an MFA in Communications Management from Webster University as well as BAs in Communications and English from the University of Texas at San Antonio.


  1. John Regula says:

    With all of the problems facing Philadelphia, this is just what we need. A bunch of hyper-sensitive “WOKE” offended by a name. GROW UP, GET OVER IT, and MOVE ON
    WITH YOUR LIVES OR YOU WILL NEVER BE FREE. There will always be something that will offend you. Heaven knows, you never stop looking. What utter foolishness.

    1. Sam says:

      Hi John- most, if not all, of the Rename Taney Coalition members are activists and teachers who do many things to address Philadelphia’s problems including run mutual aid organizations, volunteer with community based nonprofits and donate to social justice causes. It’s a multifaceted approach and we can address more than one issue at a time and are all important. If you don’t have a problem with an issue, that usually means it doesn’t negatively affect you personally and that is a privilege you would have, not an indication that the issue is not problematic.

      This article deals with removing this name because it IS a problem and as the article shows: it was never just a “name” and it was never meant to be “just a name”. It was meant to be a government sanctioned act of support for Slavery and a deliberate act of racial intimidation.

      It was not ok then and just because time has passed doesn’t grandfather it into “ok” now. And if now is when it can be changed then great, let’s do it specifically so as you say, PEOPLE CAN BE FREE, free of the hate they are bombarded with in their everyday lives (like a street that was renamed for a man who thought black people were nothing more than property for instance).

      Its not hypersensitivity, it’s just, again as you say, being awake and therefore cognizant of the problems in this country. Curious as to why you think the opposite of that (keeping your eyes closed and asleep) is some sort of superior stance here. Maybe get up and get out of bed and join the progress, the world is changing but it isn’t time that makes the changes it’s the people pushing for them and every act like this, no matter how small, is a push in the right direction, for ALL of us.

      1. John Regula says:

        In your world, Sam, systemic racism lurks around every corner and White Supremacy hides under every fallen leaf, like a land mine.
        You have taken a tiny bit of trivia and made it an issue where there was no issue.
        As a middle-aged White guy, I find your comments ridiculous. If I were Black, I would find them offensive, REALLY OFFENSIVE.

        1. sam says:

          Hi John- Unfortunately there is only one world, and even more unfortunately systematic racism does play a large part in it and persists due to white supremacy.
          Thank you for your reply though, as you have (inadvertently) just proved exactly how systematic Grasim and white supremacy work.

          so You (self described middle aged white man) say that this isn’t an “issue” that needs changing despite both an entire article and the results of an expansive community polling effort explaining:
          a. Why it is an issue
          b. the history behind it and c. the positive impact the name change will have for this world overall. (I should also mention that this was written by people who have a wealth of knowledge/expertise in the fields of study this subject involves by the way (history, communications, sociology, politics, and community involvement AND that the community that was polled consists of people from all backgrounds and walks of life including black people)

          AND YET for reasons you can’t even articulate well, you have decided it isn’t an issue and went so far as to post comments on an article about it. You call it “trivia” (because YOU didn’t know the history) and “non-issue” (because YOU don’t see the problem with a street named after a racist man) and even, in an absolutely stunningly plain show of YOUR supremacist thinking, assuming how you would feel about it if you were black, when ACTUAL black people are saying otherwise. Just WOW John.
          I hope very sincerely that you are capable of the work necessary to sit in the uncomfortable realization of your thinking process and that you look within yourself for change because you have just as much responsibility as everyone else in this world to tear down EVERY faucet of evil that was done upon any people so it can be built back up into a better world for EVERYONE. But if not, don’t worry, as you said, I still have hope that those of us who are awake will keep up the fight.

          1. John Regula says:

            What’s next on your agenda, Sammy? The Parkway? The Squares? Between the lines of your exquisitely nuanced “virtue signaling”, you seem to have lost all common sense. I’ll say a prayer for you tonight.

          2. John Regula says:

            My mother always told me to avoid people like you. BYE!

  2. Joan says:

    Taney was an originalist who interpreted the Constitution as written. Don’t blame Taney for making blacks non-citizens; blame the founding fathers, like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. Read his decision in Dred Scott. Our founders set up the two-tiered system, not Taney. Taney in fact freed all his slaves as soon as he inherited them. He felt, correctly, that it was not his job to adjudicate changes to the Constitution that legislation or amendments should do.

    1. Sam says:

      Taney may have personally freed his own slaves in 1818, having owned them his entire life (born into wealth on a Tabacco farm in 1777. However he stated AFTER he freed his personal slaves that: he felt slavery necessary as long as African Americans lived in the United States.
      He believed black people merely property.

      It is also incorrect that he was just following the constitution and laws as they were written as during the Scott vs Sandford ruling he took the additional step of proclaiming that the 1820 Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. The purpose of which was meant to legalize slavery throughout the land once again, and into the western expansion.

      The move was so egregious that the Northern Territories refused to recognize the rulings, abolitionists had a renewed passion to fight the ills of slavery, cand even noncritics of the issue questioned the logic of the ruling and pinioned that Taney had inflicted “irrevocable damage upon the high court”.
      Such was the infamy of Taney’s words that upon his death, Mass Senator Charles Sumner mused “that the name of Taney is to be hooted down the page of history. Judgement is beginning now; and an emancipated country will fasten upon him the stigma which he deserves”.

      Also of note, you mention that we shouldn’t “blame Taney”. However removing the name is not a punishment. However when the name was changed to Taney it was done as a show of support for his views. Therefore renaming it to LeCount would show that his views are not supported. So anyone who doesn’t share TANEY’S opinion and also know the history of the street name would not see an issue with that.

  3. Joan says:

    Who said the following?

    “I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

    Not Taney. This quote is Abraham Lincoln’s.

    1. Vickie Feldman says:

      And what is your point? Have you ever heard the expression, “Two wrongs don’t make a right”?? How does Lincoln’s terrible mistake in this instance justify keeping the name of Taney, a known racist and white supremacist, on a Philadelphia street name?

      1. Joan says:

        Lincoln seems clearly racist and white supremacist in his quoted words. To plant our current ideas of social justice into the past and examine all historical figures with that microscope is a tedious game. Penn, Washington, Jefferson, and others owned slaves. Taney, as soon as he inherited the family slaves, freed them. The founders of our country meant and wrote into the Constitution that enslaved people were property. Taney did his job of interpreting the Constitution as written. An amendment changed the status of enslaved people, and that amendment was needed because of the founders’ words in the Constitution.

        I couldn’t care less about the name of a street. But I find hypocrisy in those who are selective in their targets. We have Washington Avenue, Jefferson Street, Lincoln Drive. Take aim?

        Taney-sylvania, anyone?

        1. sam says:

          Joan, lots of people have issues with ALL of these street names/statues/buildings/sports teams etc and are working to get them changed. It is willful ignorance to assume that this is the only target or that efforts of social justice are “new”, this very article highlights one such person (Caroline LeCount) who was fighting for social justice in the time of Taney). Please look to educate yourself about the long and on going efforts of people to stamp out everyday racism all over this country since the beginning of it. Also please realize that what you are describing IS SYSTEMATIC racism- racism that is so prolific,it is embedded into the American public infrastructure on such a wide scale you yourself describe it as tedious to confront.

          1. Joan says:

            “Willful ignorance?” “Educate yourself?” I have a PhD in American History. Condescend much? Anyone who disagrees with you is ignorant? This attitude is what is splitting our country apart. I will assume you are just young and need some more reading. I won’t stoop to calling you willfully ignorant.

    2. Sam says:

      Hi Joan. Not sure what the purpose of this quote by Lincoln is supposed to be arguing for. No one thinks, or is claiming, that Lincoln was an abolitionist here, but regardless that’s a conversation for another time.

      This article is about why the name Taney should be renamed and it is due to TANEY’S words and actions. He was a staunch supporter of the south and slavery, and was selected as attorney general in 1831 by Andrew Jackson and later appointed to the supreme court specifically for his views. There were high hopes from Jackson that Taney would be able to help settle the country’s great slave debate once and for all, in a way that would protect the southern interests, and he did not disappoint. As chief Justice of the court, he penned the majority decision in the Scott vs Sanford case. Taney’s opinion mused that when Jefferson said
      “All men are created equal” in the declaration of Independence, “it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration. . .. had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.” You could also do a Google search to find other quotes from him that make his abhorrent views crystal clear that he endorsed this ideology.
      On top of that, the reason the street was RENAMED Taney was as a show of support from the mayor (Vaux) of those views. It should never have been allowed to happen and is a relatively easy fix to right it.

      1. Joan says:

        “ formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration.”

        That phrase is my point. Taney’s job was not to write the 13th Amendment; that is for Congress and the people. Taney was interpreting the Constitution as written.

        1. sam says:

          Joan- so your argument is that the issue was for congress and the people to decide? Ok well then you would have to also agree that Taney was NOT following the law because that had already occurred with the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and black people were already living as free men at the time of Taney’s opinion.

          Also again, he is not being punished for his views, though they were abhorrent.TANEY SAID: he felt slavery necessary as long as African Americans lived in the United States.because HE BELIEVED they were nothing more than property. Even if he only made his ruling based on the constitution (he did, he tried to overturn the Missouri Compromise, and HE thought black people were not humans) would that make it ok? the answer is NO. FULL STOP.

          1. Joan says:

            Read Taney’s written decision, with which the majority of SCOTUS agreed. The decision overturned the Missouri Compromise as being unconstitutional. Judicial review is the job of the courts. The decision never said that blacks were not human, as your hyperbolic argument goes, but that they were not citizens. This was based on the founders’ writings. The 14th Amendment changed that. Taney, like Lincoln, believed that blacks were inferior. He, and Lincoln, were wrong, but the history of exploitation of blacks, Irish immigrants, the Chinese, etc., is rife with rationalizations for the exploitation of “inferior” peoples.

            Let me know when your are going to DC to pull down the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

  4. Paul Linton says:

    Good job Leo and samara always been one of my pet peaves. Let’s get rid of vare Ave while we’re at it.

  5. Jim Murphy says:

    Really nicely done piece with a great historical perspective. I hope this hateful name is changed.

    1. Vickie Feldman says:

      I’m with you.I live right next to Taney Street, and I would be quite happy to see the name be changed to celebrate Ms. LeCount. It really bothers me that the street is currently honoring the memory of a notorious racist and white supremacist.

  6. Sam says:

    Systematic racism is prevalent in all facets of society (that’s why the street was renamed from Minor to Taney in the first place). In combating it, we must work to dismantle it at every level as well. Renaming the street to LeCount would be a small, but not unsignificant step in that because righting past wrongs (such as removing names, statues, flags, etc etc like this) will alter the future for the better because it removes a blatant act of intimidation/racism that the change to Taney was intended as and continues to be. Just imagine how it could possibly feel to walk down a street named after a judge who said people who looked like you weren’t human and city representatives supported that position.
    Therefore, replacing it with the name of someone who fought for equality and social justice (like Caroline LeCount) shows everyone great examples of diverse peoples who are actually worth of depiction and adulation (thus fight the stereotypes perpetrated by racism) and sends a message about what position the city represents now.

    1. Joan says:

      Your first sentence is a disputed premise, and your argument flows from that flawed premise. I, and many people, don’t think we exist in an omnipresent ether of systemic racism. The statement that systemic racism pervades all facets of society is a testable hypothesis that has been found wanting.

      For example, much is made of blacks being overrepresented in the judicial system. Now think honestly for a second: why do males, who make up half the population, constitute 88% of the prison population? Be honest, and hold that thought.

      The 9th District police try to keep the Logan Square neighborhood safe, and they post monthly tallies of crime victim reports. When you examine a few years’ worth of those reports you find that 92% of crimes reported by victims, counting only crimes in which the race of the perp was known and stated, were committed by blacks. Blacks constitute 10% of the Logan Square neighborhood population. Just as male representation in prisons is due to more criminal activity by males, so too blacks seem in one neighborhood at least to commit an inordinate proportion of crime.

      Data dispels perceived racism better than renaming streets. Of course, reliance on data, according to the Folks at the Museum of African-American History on the national mall, is part of “white culture,” so please keep the stories coming. Google the museum and “white culture” for the museum’s educational placard on “white culture.”

      1. sam says:

        Joan- Systematic racism isn’t in dispute by any one other than people who are ignorant to the history of this country. Almost every academic scholar agrees – name a topic and you can easily trace historical FACTS on how racism factors into it.

        But you don’t want to do that, specifically because of inherent (systematic) racism. Otherwise when someone told you 88% of the prison population is black males you would have looked into it instead of just took it at face value. (Otherwise please post your credible source for review). But I could not find that statistic showing those totals anywhere, but according to the most recent information I could find on Bureau of Prison for feb 2022 (government run site) the population of black inmates was 38.3 % while the white population was 57.7% .

        As for your last sentence about the placecard at the National Museum of of African American History- I assume you are talking about the graphic that described “aspects and assumptions about white culture”, correct? if so, do you think that was put up by black people or something? The museum is run but the Smithsonian. Not sure what it has to do with this conversation. However, after people complained, guess what- the museum officials apologized and took it down. So seems like that is a good example of something else small but offense being removed easily and the good it does for everyone even those who didn’t feel “affected” like Taney Street.

        1. Joan says:

          Whoa! Where to start…I said males, not black males, make up 88% of the prison population. The website you posted has the breakdown by gender, and males actually make up 93% of the prison population. Males commit more crimes. Blacks make up 38% of the prison population, so 93% of 38% is 35% of the prison population is made up of black males, who make up only 7% of the general population. Black males, as the data from Logan Square intimate, commit a disproportionate number of crimes. Blacks encountering police, the judicial system, and prisons is not a symptom of “systemic racism,” but of systemic criminal behavior among blacks, especially males. Follow the data, not your brainwashed ideology.

          The Smithsonian example was simply to show that all races can be racist. That infographic about “white culture” came from the Museum of African American History.” To think that the higher ups there are not predominantly of the black race is, to quote someone I know, “willful ignorance.” That infographic was removed not because it offended whites, but because it offended blacks. “White culture” valued logic, hard work, being on time…really? So black culture doesn’t???

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