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The Perils of Public Memory: State v. Mann and Thomas Ruffin in History and Memory

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Friday, November 16, 2007

9:00 AM

4:00 PM

Dialectic Society Chamber on the top floor of New West (UNC-Chapel Hill campus)

In 1829, Judge Thomas Ruffin of the North Carolina Supreme Court wrote what is undoubtedly the coldest and starkest defense of the brutality of slavery ever to appear in an American judicial opinion.The notorious decision in State v. Mann provided fodder for Harriet Beecher Stowe; more recently, it has been the touchstone for outstanding scholarship in legal history, law and literature, cultural studies, southern studies, and other fields.

A decade ago, Sanford Levinson raised the following provocative questions about Judge Ruffin:

Can one have, as apparently Harriet Beecher Stowe did, “deep respect for the man” Ruffin even as one despises the system that he served? Would we, for example, wish to honor him by placing his portrait in American law schools as a presumed inspiration to further generations of law students as to what it means to be a “distinguished” lawyer or judge, or does authorship of State v. Mann disqualify him from any such honor? This is simply part of a much broader question in regard to what might be described as the semiotics or “political economy” of public homage. By what criteria do we decide whom to build statues of—or whose statues to leave up throughout time—or whom to place on currency or put on postage stamps?

These are especially poignant questions here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, just a few miles south of Ruffin's Hillsborough gravesite and a few miles west of his imposing statue in the foyer of the state's Court of Appeals.Here at UNC, a portrait of Judge Ruffin, who served as Chief Justice for the state court for almost twenty years, has graced the walls of the law school, and a dormitory proudly bears his name.Official university biographies recall that “university presidents frequently sought his advice” and that he was “great as a lawyer, great as a judge, great as a financier, great as a farmer—rugged, indomitable soul in a frame of iron, made to conquer, and conquering every difficulty on every side.” His authorship of the notorious Mann opinion, with its cold claim that “the power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect,” go unmentioned.

Together with the Center for the Study of the American South and the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, the law school is convening a one-day conference on November 16, 2007, to consider Professor Levinson's important questions about Judge Ruffin, State v. Mann, and the difficulties of public homage.We will gather a group of leading scholars in relevant fields whose work will both enlarge our understanding of Ruffin and the case of State v. Mann and help clarify the problems that we confront in publicly commemorating historical figures whose lives included both great good and great evil.We will convene these discussions under the painted visage of Judge Ruffin himself, in the restored debating chamber of the old UNC Dialectic Society, which commissioned the portrait.

The conference organizers are Sally Greene and Eric Muller.

Sally Greene is an independent scholar who holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina as well as a J.D. from the George Washington University. She has taught in the English departments and law schools at both the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia; she has published widely on literary and historical topics. Her edited collection of essays Virginia Woolf: Reading the Renaissance was published by the Ohio University Press in 1999.A chapter on Chief Judge Ruffin's statue in the North Carolina Court of Appeals building will appear in a forthcoming book from the University of Virginia Press.

Eric Muller is the George R. Ward Professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law. One of the nation's leading experts on the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II, he has written extensively on the problems of evaluating the legacies of those responsible for that massive violation of human and civil rights.His book Free to Die for their Country (University of Chicago Press, 2001) was named a Top Nonfiction Title of the Year 2001 by the Washington Post.A new book, American Inquisition:The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press this fall.In a recent article in the Boston College Law Review, he proposed a new framework for evaluating episodes of historical injustice.

Ten scholars (including Muller and Greene) will contribute essays exploring Professor Levinson's questions. One participant will be Professor Levinson himself, who will expand on the questions he posed a decade ago.Another will be Professor Mark Tushnet of Harvard Law School, author of the book State v. Mann in History and Literature (University Press of Kansas, 2003).Other confirmed participants are Professor Alfred Brophy of the University of Alabama School of Law, whose work on the history of slavery and racial repression is voluminous and well known; Adrienne Davis of the UNC Law School, whose scholarship emphasizes the gendered and private law dimensions of American slavery, as well as theories of commodification, law and literature, and reparations; Laura Edwards of Duke University, a historian whose work focuses on women, gender, and the law in the nineteenth-century South; Bernard Boxill, UNC philosophy professor whose work focuses on questions of institutional wrongs and reparations, especially for African Americans; David Lowenthal, professor emeritus, University College, London, author of The Past is a Foreign Country and much else on the intersection of history and memory; and Judge James A. Wynn Jr. of the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

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