Hillsborough residents will talk in March about renaming a neighborhood street that honors a North Carolina chief justice and slave owner.
Thomas Ruffin’s portraits were removed last year from the Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough and from the N.C. Supreme Court courtroom. His statue also was removed from the N.C. Court of Appeals last year.
Hillsborough’s town board voted unanimously Monday night to hold a public hearing March 8.
Board member Evelyn Lloyd expressed concern about changing street names before she voted to support the hearing. Hillsborough has many streets named for historic American and British figures, many of whom did good things for the town but also owned slaves, Lloyd said.
“There were many slaveholders if you go back and read the history of Hillsborough,” she said.
Lawyer, farmer, university trustee
Ruffin was a Hillsborough lawyer, Alamance County farmer and trustee at UNC. He joined the state Supreme Court in 1829 and served as chief justice from 1833 to 1852.
He also owned and lived the later years of his life in the Ruffin-Roulhac House, which now serves as Hillsborough’s Town Hall. He is buried in the St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Hillsborough.
The town board approved a process last year for changing street names after Thomas Ruffin Street neighbors approached them about changing their street. All of the residents who live on the street signed a petition supporting the change to Hope Lane.
“We live on an amazing street,” said resident Marty Nelson, who has worked with the town to change the name. “It has been a long and collaborative effort. We all feel so fortunate.”
It was more of a challenge to find the right name than to make the change, Nelson said.
Historic court ruling
Board member Mark Bell noted that his hope was the street could have been named “Lydia Street” in honor of the enslaved woman shot in the back who became the subject of the landmark State vs. Mann case that Ruffin decided as a state Supreme Court justice.
In that case, Ruffin rejected the idea that a slave owner could be guilty of assault or battery of an enslaved person.
“The power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect,” he wrote in his decision. “This discipline belongs to the state of slavery.”
The neighborhood did not consider the enslaved woman’s name, Nelson said, although it did consider naming the street for Jesse Ruffin, the coachman for Thomas Ruffin.
“In the long run, everybody thought best to stay away from people’s names for a street,” Nelson said.