On a fall day in 1829, an old sea captain stood trial in Edenton, North Carolina for a crime that gave rise to one of the nation’s most notorious court decisions. The defendant, John Mann, didn’t amount to much during his lifetime. But 200 years later, North Carolinians are still talking about his case.
Mann lived at the edge of the seaport town, near the public common where residents grazed their donkeys and horses. His finances were in tatters: He’d spent three weeks in a debtors’ prison and lost the title to both his house and its furnishings.
He still had enough money, though, in 1828 to hire an enslaved woman named Lydia from her owner. The following year, Mann tried to discipline Lydia for what a court deemed a “small offense.” When she took off running, Mann called for his gun and shot the 23-year-old. He wounded her, but she survived.
A jury of 12 slaveholding men convicted Mann of assault and battery. Had he simply paid the $5 fine, his crime would have vanished into some tucked-away legal file.
Instead, Mann appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction. Thomas Ruffin, a 42-year-old attorney from Hillsborough and a newcomer to the court, authored the 1830 decision. “I would gladly have avoided this ungrateful question,” he wrote. But for slavery to persist as an institution, someone who hires a worker temporarily must possess just as much authority as the owner.
To be enslaved, Ruffin explained, is to be “doomed.” No one would voluntarily relinquish their free will and toil for someone else’s profit. “Such obedience is the consequence only of uncontrolled authority over the body,” the judge wrote. “The power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect.”
Ruffin later became the court’s chief justice, and was better known for decisions that helped spark the state’s industrial growth. In 1938, Harvard legal scholar Roscoe Pound ranked him among America’s 10 greatest judges. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he served as a trustee, named a dormitory after him. A statue went up at the state Court of Appeals building. And at the North Carolina Supreme Court, a larger-than-life portrait of Ruffin, hand tucked in waistcoat like Napoleon, hung directly behind the chief justice’s seat for 132 years.
Ruffin’s reputation might have remained golden if not for an attorney named Sally Greene, who has led a 23-year effort to reassess the judge’s legacy. What began as a one-woman church project turned into an academic collaboration, and then a political campaign that gained traction as more Americans started to question the way we memorialize white supremacists.
Her work culminated in September, when North Carolina’s state government finally acknowledged the brutality of State v. Mann with a historical marker.
Greene, who also has a doctorate in English, considers herself a scholar, not an activist. She speaks in measured sentences that mask the intensity of her dedication to racial justice, and describes her interest in Ruffin’s decision as partly intellectual. “The words of it, if you’re a textual scholar, are almost like a poem that deserves to be analyzed,” she said.
But she also feels driven to refute what she calls a pernicious misconception. “It continues to frustrate me that so many people want to give Ruffin a pass: He was ‘a man of his times,’ powerless against the law,” she said. Ruffin’s ruling was hardly obligatory, she concluded. It was a choice informed by his own financial stake in slavery.
“I believe we need to own that,” she said, “in order to confront hard questions about how a single person in power can so abuse that power. ”
Beyond the Books
Her inquiry started with a request from her priest.
Greene, who lives in Chapel Hill, attends St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hillsborough, which was built in the 1820s on land Ruffin donated. In 2000, the church named a parish house after him.
The Rev. Brooks Graebner, the rector at the time, came up with the name for the new building. Graebner has a doctorate in history, but had not delved into the original documents from Ruffin’s career. “I took more or less at face value all the things that were said about how wonderful and generous and significant Thomas Ruffin was,” he said.
Graebner knew about Greene’s legal background and academic research skills. He asked her to investigate Ruffin’s historical significance and report back to the church.
The first accounts Greene read were adulatory. They mentioned Ruffin’s pro-business decisions, like the one authorizing private railroads to benefit from eminent domain: rulings that helped North Carolina shed its early 19th-century reputation as the economically stuporous “Rip Van Winkle State.” “Nothing about State v. Mann shows up in these histories,” she said.
Then Greene dove into the law journals, and discovered that scholars had been talking about the Mann case for decades. In 1974, the University of Chicago held a conference on slavery law, whose attendees “discovered that they had all been raised in the same little village … named State v. Mann,” historian Stanley Katz later said in a speech. They considered Mann the central text in their field because of how Ruffin “laid out the logic of slave law as coolly as a surgeon slicing open the belly of a patient on the operating table.”
Greene reported her discoveries to Graebner, and asked if she could share them with the congregation. “Of course,” he told her. “We need to know this.” She gave her first presentation in 2001.
The Ruffin research was a wake-up for Greene, a Texas native who had devoted her academic career to British literature and particularly Virginia Woolf. From an early age, Greene had believed that “England was culture itself,” she said in a follow-up church talk. “For all I could tell, all of the United States had no culture, no intellectual history, no history.” It didn’t seem worth studying.
Learning about Mann forced her to reconsider that position: “to understand that not only is there an awful lot of history right here under our feet, but that it matters.” She had grown up absorbing the mythology of the Lost Cause, which cast enslaved Africans as happy and Confederate soldiers as noble. Ruffin’s legacy, she realized, was another example of how Southern history had been “prettied over.” She wanted to unpretty it.
So she kept researching. Hidden away in the State Archives, Greene found the original record from Mann’s arrest and the Edenton jury trial. She also learned more about Lydia, one of 21 enslaved laborers whose household was broken apart after the master’s death. Lydia became the “investment property” of the master’s teenage daughter, which is how she ended up hired out as a servant in John Mann’s house.
In that follow-up talk, Greene described Ruffin as “our patron sinner.”
A few years into her research, Greene had coffee with Eric Muller, a law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. The two friends shared an interest in how history is remembered—in Muller’s case, the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. After she told him about State v. Mann, she recalled, he asked her, “Why aren’t you doing something about this?”
“I don’t have any academic status,” she told him. “You do. How about we do something?” Together, they organized a conference at UNC-CH in 2007.
They were, in Muller’s words, a Mutt and Jeff team. Muller was the emotionally expressive Northerner. Greene was the diplomatic Southerner who learned discretion from her mother, a liberal newspaper publisher in a conservative town. “She has managed to get a lot done by marrying an internal deeply felt passion with an external grace and kindness and understatement,” said the law professor.
Muller was interested in the language of Mann: the way Ruffin lamented having to condone the shooting of an enslaved worker. “I feel it as deeply as any man can,” the judge wrote, “and as a principle of moral right every person in his retirement must repudiate it.” Still, Ruffin argued, slavery exists, and “it is useless … to complain of things inherent in our political state.”
Was Ruffin really in moral agony? Or were these, as Muller called them, crocodile tears? The professor went to UNC-CH’s Wilson Library and pored through Ruffin’s extensive papers, looking for documentation of the judge’s personal connections to slavery.
Historians already knew that, in 1824, a friend had written to Ruffin to describe the “barbarous treatment” of enslaved workers at his Alamance County farm while he was away. According to the friend, Ruffin’s overseer punished one man using a torture method called “barbecuing, peppering, and salting.”
Muller’s own research uncovered evidence of more hands-on complicity. Ruffin confessed, in an 1831 letter, to “giving a good caning” to an enslaved woman named Bridget, who no longer belonged to him but who had trespassed onto his farm and given him “a look of insolent audacity.” After reading about the flogging, Muller found it impossible to believe Ruffin’s profession of moral struggle. Maybe it wasn’t the law that compelled him to absolve Mann, but rather his own predilection.
Muller also learned more about Ruffin’s role in a slave-trading partnership that overlapped his tenure as a lower-court judge. The business purchased enslaved people in the Upper South and then sold them for a profit in the Deep South. It separated children from their parents, and siblings from each other. In one transaction, a 9-year-old named Winny was bought for $240 and sold for $310. Her parents were not part of the deal.
Ruffin seemed to know this was a disreputable enterprise. In the 1821 partnership agreement, he insisted on keeping his involvement secret. And when Ruffin invited another man to join the business, the man declined and explained that he found human trafficking revolting.
Muller and Greene turned their research into papers later published in a special issue of the North Carolina Law Review. Also in that issue, Judge James Wynn Jr., then a member of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, published an imagined dissent to Mann based on the law at the time. Wynn’s dissent demonstrated that, even by 1830 legal standards, Ruffin’s harsh conclusion wasn’t inevitable.
After the conference and publication, Muller remembers thinking, “We’ve squeezed the historical orange and gotten all of the juice out of it.” Maybe their research would make a dent in how history remembered Ruffin. Muller returned to his World War II research, while Greene spent three years at UNC-CH’s Center for the Study of the American South and continued serving on Chapel Hill Town Council. Their collaboration took a hiatus.
Then came the Black Lives Matter movement, the national debate over monuments to white supremacists, and the 2018 toppling of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Confederate statue, Silent Sam. Students had protested Silent Sam for decades, but their efforts gained traction after historian Adam Domby, then a graduate student, unearthed the speech that industrialist Julian Carr made the day of the statue’s dedication, bragging about having “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds.”
As with Ruffin, it was archival research that cast a brighter light on the violence of white supremacy.
Nowhere was the continued veneration of Ruffin more obvious than inside the state’s highest court, where a full-body portrait of Ruffin dominated the chamber.
“You just can’t believe how frickin’ big this thing is,” Muller said. “Any litigant, any lawyer, everybody pleading a case in front of the North Carolina Supreme Court is doing it under the eye of Thomas Ruffin.” Muller felt discouraged that it was still hanging there despite all he and Greene had unearthed; how had that not sparked a conversation leading to the portrait’s removal? In 2018, the duo co-authored a column for Raleigh’s News & Observer describing State v. Mann as “the most shocking opinion” in all of slavery law. “The time has come to call Thomas Ruffin to account—to revisit both his dominating presence in the courtroom and the absence of those he repressed,” they wrote.
That same day, the Supreme Court issued an order establishing an advisory commission on portraits. The chief justice at the time was Mark Martin, a Republican.
Martin’s Democratic successor, Cheri Beasley, appointed the members in 2019. As the state’s first Black woman chief justice, she felt the irony of sitting squarely in front of Ruffin, who “would have been abhorred,” she said, by her position.
The commission cranked up slowly. Greene and Muller realized they needed more activist muscle. So they reached out to two respected civil-rights leaders. One was James E. Williams Jr., a former public defender who now chairs a nonprofit called the North Carolina Commission on Racial & Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System.
For Williams, the portrait was more than retrograde symbolism. “What a person confronts when they enter a courthouse sends out some serious messages,” he said, “especially if they are based in the notion that some people are not equal to others.”
Williams knew that modern policing in the South has roots in “slave patrols” that chased down escapees and quashed rebellions. Given the recent police killings of unarmed Black Americans, he believed, the justice system should not lionize a judge who condoned the shooting of an unarmed, enslaved Black woman.
The other leader was Tim Tyson, a historian at Duke University and UNC-CH who was active in the state’s NAACP. Tyson, who studies Southern race relations, was struck by how State vs. Mann shattered North Carolina’s self-image as a place whose prosperity grew out of racial moderation: a state where Black reasonableness met white benevolence. “This kind of racial paternalism has been seen as a kind of generosity,” he said, “when it really was just a green ivy of civility over the rock wall of white supremacy.”
The racial caste system of 21st-century America has its roots in the slave economy that Ruffin defended in the 19th. That, to Tyson, made it even more urgent to reevaluate Ruffin’s legacy and share the conclusions. “It’s more than just understanding enslavement,” he said. “We make the future, but we make it out of the past.”
The four met at Greene’s house in 2019. They drank whiskey and discussed how to increase the pressure on the court using public education, private lobbying, and local example-setting. From that meeting came an early win: Williams successfully lobbied for the removal of another Ruffin portrait from Orange County’s historic courthouse.
Getting the state Supreme Court to follow suit would prove considerably harder.
The Supreme Court’s portrait commission reached full throttle in mid-2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was underway, and the murder of George Floyd had ignited demonstrations nationwide, including in Raleigh. Ten days before a key commission meeting that July, safety concerns forced the removal of Ruffin’s statue from the state Court of Appeals building.
It became clear early on that the commission would not reach a consensus on the painting. Their virtual meetings were filled with sharp exchanges and failed votes. Numerous technological glitches made the mood even tenser.
At one end was Bree Newsome Bass, an activist and artist from Charlotte who was arrested in 2015 for scaling a flagpole at the South Carolina State Capitol and removing the Confederate flag. She noted that when the Ruffin painting went up in 1888, Southern leaders were using art to glorify the antebellum racial order.
“They wanted portraits that were comparable to the portraits of George Washington and the figures of the American Revolution,” she said at that July 2020 meeting. “They wanted figures of their heroes, who were not heroes of the Union, but were specifically figures of the Confederacy and the slaveocracy.”
Even the majority who agreed Ruffin was a troubling character quarreled about the solution. Should they replace the giant painting with a smaller one that matched the other portraits in the courtroom? Should they remove all the portraits, as Newsome Bass advocated, on the grounds that no judge’s image is neutral?
The commission’s outlier was co-chair Danny Moody, then the court’s chief of protocol, who was responsible for collecting many of the portraits. Moody held the traditionalist view that Ruffin was one of the nation’s great legal minds. To him, critics had mounted a “rabid attempt” to destroy the judge’s reputation.
Moody believed that history needed to view Ruffin as a whole person: a father who discouraged his son from joining the Ku Klux Klan; a leader of the society that revived the State Fair after the Civil War. What’s more, Moody told the others, Mann needed to be understood in the context of a slave revolt that was brewing along the North Carolina-Virginia line at the time. “People were scared of being murdered in their own bed,” he said.
Moody’s frustration was evident. “I am beating my head against a stone wall,” he said at one meeting. He loved judicial history and had accumulated a vast personal collection of memorabilia: the oldest law licenses issued by the court, books from the libraries of early judges, photographs, biographies, and genealogies. “Upon my death, these materials will be burned,” he said, “to avoid someone coming along and either revamping or destroying some of my work.”
In the end, the commission voted 8-4 to recommend that the large portrait be replaced with something smaller and less prominently located. Justice Beasley announced the portrait would be removed in December 2020, and watched it come down. “All of us were very much aware that this was a monumental moment,” Beasley said, looking back. “It was a reckoning with the court’s history and with the state’s history, and it was important for us to do it.”
The large portrait has not been replaced with a smaller one.
Marking a Moment
Greene still wanted North Carolina to acknowledge publicly that its judiciary had let a white man walk free after shooting an enslaved woman.
She envisioned a historical marker at the site of Mann’s attack on Lydia. But she didn’t know anyone in Edenton, and sat on the idea for years.
Then another parishioner from St. Matthew’s led her to Frances Inglis, a direct descendant of Ruffin and member of a church-based group in Edenton that meets weekly to promote racial reconciliation. Inglis’ family knew their ancestor as a judge, an apple breeder, and a slave owner, but not as a trafficker or as the author of State v. Mann.
Greene initially visited the coastal town in 2017 as Inglis’ guest, and met with the group. As they learned more about Ruffin’s past, “it went from bad to worse,” said Inglis’ daughter Susan. (Frances has since died.) “But my mama was willing to sit with it. And this group of people who already loved her, and loved me by extension, were willing to continually sit with us in having conversations about whatever comes up.”
The group homed in on Lydia’s story, particularly her decision to risk her life and flee. “I felt that through my heart and bones,” said Deborah Davis, a Black member. “If someone who was a slave, under all of those circumstances, was able to stand up and say, ‘This is not right; I’m not going to be treated like that,’ then there’s no rationale for us not to do the same.”
The Edentonians liked Greene’s plan to seek a historical marker. They hoped it would introduce Lydia’s story to the public. “It is a really bad thing that Thomas Ruffin made this judgment, and it must be recognized,” Inglis said. “It’s equally important that we celebrate the person without whom it wouldn’t have happened, the person who was the direct, single-person victim.”
In 2020, after a second visit to Edenton, Greene applied for a marker near the site of Mann’s house, where a modern brick dentist’s office now stands. The historians on North Carolina’s Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee review applications, most from the public, and approve about half of them. Over the past 20 years, the committee has greenlighted more than 200 markers, including a handful that commemorate difficult parts of state history: the Wilmington coup, the Greensboro Massacre, the Eugenics Board.
In 2022, the committee approved it by unanimous vote. Markers focus on subjects of statewide significance, like Mann. But Greene had made clear that it was also important to identify Lydia.
So the historians crafted a phrasing that, in limited space, described Ruffin’s ruling and named the woman at its center:
STATE v. MANN
N.C. Supreme Court, 1830, reinforced power of slaveholding regime by overturning conviction of Mann (lived nearby) for shooting Lydia, enslaved.
It was a modest acknowledgement. “We accept that Lydia’s name is to the bottom,” Davis said a month before the unveiling. “But when we have the program, our focus is on Lydia.”
Angels Were Watching
Davis emceed the September 17 unveiling. It began eight blocks from the marker, inside the colonial-era courthouse where the jury convicted Mann. Two hundred people packed the chamber. St. Matthew’s in Hillsborough sent 26, wearing purple buttons that said, “We Remember Lydia.”
Greene, now an Orange County commissioner, retold the story of State v. Mann from Lydia’s perspective. “He has slowed her down, but she keeps going,” Greene said. “What was Lydia thinking? She hardly had time to make a plan. But … she knew she was out of there. This sister was a resister.”
The keynote speaker was James Wynn Jr., the judge who wrote an imagined dissent to State v. Mann. Shortly after it was published, President Barack Obama had nominated Wynn to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he still serves. Inside the Edenton courtroom, Wynn warned against glorifying Ruffin even if Mann mirrored the prevailing sentiment of his peers.
“In this world in which Thomas Ruffin lived, it was the temper of the times,” Wynn said. “Now, I accept ‘temper of the times.’ … But you don’t get revered for it. Because even in the worst of times, there’s always been somebody who did right.”
Before everyone adjourned to the marker site, where the black veil covering the sign would be tugged down, North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green closed out the ceremony with a poem composed for that day that brought the audience to its feet. “Oh Lydia,” she read:
if they could have they would have strangled you inside the belly of your mama
but angels were watching in the nettle briars, the thorn roses, the black soil beneath your feet
angels were watching when you became commodity
angels were watching as you prayed to a God that demanded resistance.