Why renaming Taney Street is slow going, despite the racist history

A coalition found community support for the effort, but the district lawmaker wants more proof.

Organizers Ben Keys (left), Tyrique Glasgow (center), and Joshua Isserman (right), stand at the intersection of Tasker and Taney streets in South Philadelphia

Organizers Ben Keys (left), Tyrique Glasgow (center), and Joshua Isserman (right), stand at the intersection of Tasker and Taney streets in South Philadelphia

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Nearly 90% of South Taney Street residents who filled out a survey say they want to rename their block, getting rid of the namesake with a racist history and replacing it with something new.

The effort has been years in the making, and on Sunday a coalition of neighborhood groups held an event in Grays Ferry to press their case.

Taney Street, an alleyway west of 26th that runs intermittently from Grays Ferry north through Fairmount and up into Tioga, was named in 1858 for Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney. A year prior, the justice authored the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held that African Americans were not citizens, and Congress could not prohibit slavery in the United States.

Earlier this month, the renaming coalition published a report outlining community support for the effort, which regained steam after last summer’s protest movement. Backers are hoping to identify some potential new names and get a bill introduced before City Council’s summer recess.

“This is an opportunity for politicians and the community to right a wrong,” said Tyrique Glasgow, who lives in Grays Ferry a half-block away from the street. “If we understand that this doesn’t represent us, it shouldn’t even be a question about changing the name.”

District Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson’s office said the quick timeline looks unlikely, especially since organizers haven’t yet decided on a replacement name.

“No legislation will be introduced before City Council starts its summer recess in late June,” said spokesperson Vincent Thompson.

Of 51 residents on South Taney who responded to an online poll, 45 support the renaming. Of 165 residents within a one-block radius, 96% proclaimed support.

“Obviously we haven’t reached everyone,” said Ben Keys, organizer with Rename Taney, which was founded in 2017. After creating the survey, he and his neighbors said they distributed door-hangers on every house in Johnson’s 2nd District — twice.

Neighbor Glasgow, who was born and raised around Taney Street, didn’t learn the racist history of its eponym until a few years ago. He was saddened, but not surprised.

“It wasn’t shocking,” said Glasgow, founder of the Young Chances Foundation. The after school activities nonprofit is one of five groups supporting the effort, along with the Fitler Square Neighborhood Association, the Center City Residents Association, Residents Organized for Advocacy and Direction and the South of South Neighborhood Association

“It just reaffirmed what’s going on in our society,” Glasgow said, “the underlying racism and institutional stuff in our society.”

He thinks many of his neighbors are like he once was, with no inkling that the name Taney is associated with a figure known for upholding American slavery.

There are numerous ball fields around Philadelphia with the name, and it became a household word in 2014, when star pitcher Mo’ne Davis took the Taney Dragons to the Little League World Series. The youth baseball team officially changed its name last year.

Taney and Tasker streets in South Philadelphia

Taney and Tasker streets in South Philadelphia

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

How pressing an issue is renaming a street?

Last summer’s racial justice protests spurred efforts to rename several monuments and institutions, in Philadelphia and around the nation. The Kenney administration wants to institute a Landmarks and Monuments Review Commission to formalize the process.

As things stand, getting a street renamed in Philly is no easy task.

Unlike the ceremonial renamings you see every few months — like the recent shout outs to Patti LaBelle, The Roots, and Boyz II Men — an actual name change requires a lot of legislative buy-in.

A bill has to be introduced in City Council, with the new proposed name already identified.

The Taney Street renaming would require support from multiple lawmakers, because the road runs through Johnson’s 2nd District, Council President Darrell Clarke’s 5th District, and Councilmember Curtis Jones’ 4th District.

So far, Johnson is tentatively on board.

“Councilmember Johnson is open to renaming the southern portion of Taney Street, but one critical thing to the councilman will be to hear directly from current residents of South Taney Street to see if they support a name change or not,” said spokesperson Thompson.

Meanwhile, Clarke’s office said he’s focused on more pressing issues right now — like the hearings for Mayor Jim Kenney’s $5 billion budget proposal.

“The Council President doesn’t oppose the effort, but we’re not involved or engaged at this point,” said spokesperson Joe Grace. “Renaming a city street is a fairly elaborate process.”

Councilmember Jones’ office said he supports the renaming — and is willing to work with the coalition to figure out a new name and introduce legislation.

Rename Taney is moving onto its next stage. Now, organizers are surveying the community on what name they’d rather see on the street signs. The first round of community engagement already yielded a long list of suggestions:

  • Julian Abele
  • Sadie Alexander
  • Marion Anderson
  • Octavius Catto
  • John Coltrane
  • Frederick Douglass
  • W.E.B. DuBois
  • James Forten
  • Frank Kameny
  • Caroline Lecount
  • Billy Markward
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Toni Morrison
  • Paul Robeson
  • Dred Scott
  • William Still
  • Harriet Tubman

Neighbor Glasgow agrees that there are other, more pressing issues. But he insists erasing Taney’s name from the community is important, too.

“There’s little ingredients that improve what you want your whole plate to look like,” Glasgow said. “This is a small ingredient that allows our society to eat. Gun violence, food deserts, those are high priorities. But the symbolic racism we see every day also has to be changed.”

Glasgow, Keys and Isserman walk through the Taney Street neighborhood

Glasgow, Keys and Isserman walk through the Taney Street neighborhood

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY