Things Are Changing
For the past three years I’ve been involved in a youth basketball league, as a parent, assistant coach, and coach. Three of my children have played in this league. Each of our winter weekends included a delicate balance of moving around the city from gym to gym for practices and games, doing everything we could to be there for our kids, who enjoy the camaraderie and competition of the game.
The name of the league is Taney.
I first heard of Taney as a youth sports league through the achievements of Philadelphia baseball legend Mo’ne Davis. I’m usually the guy who will drive past a neighborhood school or see an interesting street sign, and wonder why it was given that name. I didn’t have that thought about Taney. Mo’ne was doing it big for Philly and my sons were enjoying the hoops league so that’s as far as it initially went for me.
But then I remember a couple of years ago looking up some Black history info, landing on a page talking about the Dred Scott decision (spoiler alert: this is the legal cornerstone of anti-Blackness, giving Black people zero rights), and saw that Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney was the one who made this happen.
Was Roger B. Taney from Philadelphia? Nope, Maryland.
Did Roger B. Taney go to school in Philadelphia? No. He went to Dickinson, in Carlisle.
Was there some other (in)famous Taney that Taney Street, Taney Field, and the Taney youth sports teams were named after? Apparently not. While we’re not 100% certain, it seems like Roger is the guy.
So how did this happen? And why?
We don’t really know at this point (although I’m sure a deep archival search will turn up some definitive documents). The timing seems to indicate a hat tip to White supremacy. Dred Scott happened in 1857. Taney Street, which sets all of the other things named Taney in motion, gets its name in 1858. Again, this is one analysis, and maybe race has nothing to do with it. But, if it looks like a noose…
Yesterday I — and I’m assuming all other parents connected to the youth league — received an email from Taney’s Board. The subject line tells the story: TYBA to Rename Itself. (TYBA is Taney Youth Baseball Association, which also operates the basketball league).
This is important. Let me explain why.
When I discovered the connection to Roger B. Taney, I remember thinking about sending an email to the league organizers to ask about this. I don’t know what happened to that thought. It may have been playoff season, and/or tax season, and/or paper grading season, and/or flu season. I probably had a conversation with myself that went something like: “If you send this email, you’re going to have to do a whole bunch of follow-up that you don’t have the time to do because — if you’re being honest with yourself — how are you even coaching this team and getting your kids to things relatively on time. Best case, sit tight right now and pick this up when your schedule gets better.”
“Schedule gets better” typically means never, but it makes me feel good in the moment.
I definitely thought about the Taney name more this season, pretty much each time the kids put on their Taney t-shirts, right up until COVID-19 cut things a week short. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how things get their names, who got to sanction all of those age-old (and not-so age-old) monuments, why people blindly defend them (at times with the threat of violence or actual violence), and what change means.
Here’s where I’m clear: In 1857 a human being made an argument that said that human beings who had descended from long lines of human beings and whose global totality far outnumbered the fraction that were to be formally enslaved in the U.S. for another 6–8 years could not and would not ever be fully human. Not only should schools spend more time helping students understand the power of this opinion and what the United States was positioning itself to do through the decision, but we all need to deeply question how this line of thinking still persists, and what must be done to move forward. Lifting up the name Taney — a name that none of Philadelphia’s current 44% Black population would have had any say in in 1858 — is a short-sighted reminder of our grossly oppressive short-sightedness. Changing it is an invitation to do the work to grow as a society.
To have the Taney organization take the initiative to reflect and announce not that they are thinking about change, but they are committing to change, signals a necessary awareness and willingness to embrace inclusion in ways that are often overlooked. In my view, there is no better time than now to take a closer look at everything.
I’m glad I didn’t have to send an email. I can instead send a much simpler one.