The wings of butterfly, or historical absurdity, or the new normal
In logical reaction to police brutality in Minnesota captured in an iPhone snuff film, Loreal is deleting the word “whitening” from its marketing but will surely still sell the same fish oil under a different name, cartoon characters have vanished like commissars in Stalinist photographs, and episodes of already dated sitcoms are being memory-holed from their streaming service time capsules.
Meanwhile, statues of everyone from Francis Scott Key– whose virtually unknown ditty could be replaced by a hippy song that came from the Yoko-era– to a Norwegian abolitionist who died trying to end slavery have been toppled.
In the latest episode of waking from the slumber of a lack of awareness to scrub something away that is now problematic, the historic 327-foot Secretary-class gunboat/high endurance cutter USCGC Taney (WPG/WHEC-37), known to many as the “Queen of the Sea,” has been quietly renamed, her stern nameplate torched off and her signage and gangplank fabric removed from where she sits as a museum ship in Baltimore.
Living Classrooms Board of Trustees, who controls Historic Ships Baltimore, voted over the weekend to change Taney’s name to Thurgood Marshall.
As a background, the vessel was named for Roger Brooke Taney, a controversial figure and racist by today’s standards who, besides serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War and Attorney General, also filled in for “Old Hickory” as his Treasury Secretary– which is why the cutter was named after him, as the class of seven 327-foot cutters were all named for previous Revenue Service bosses (Bibb, Campbell, Duane, Alexander Hamilton, Ingham, Spencer, Taney), a department the USCG belonged to until 1967. Further, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service had named a previous ship “Taney” in the 1830s, arguing that it was a historic ship name to one degree or another.
By all means, Taney the man is seen as unredeemable today, delivering the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case and penning some other very tough-to-read thoughts that no one in the past half-century has entertained as being acceptable.
Should the 1930s USCG have named their new vessel after him? Probably not, even by the standards of that era, but nonetheless they did and USCGC Taney went on to deliver tremendous service to the country.
She was at Pearl Harbor and Midway then escorted convoys across the Atlantic before coming back to the Pacific where she served as an amphibious command ship off Okinawa, ending WWII in Japanese Home Waters.
A few years later she put on her war paint once again for Korea.
Not to be deterred, she continued to serve in the post-war Coast Guard, saving lives, delivering the rule of law across marine fisheries, combatting smugglers, and manning isolated ocean stations for the sake of the greater good. Oh yeah, and doing the whole Cold War thing, too.
She went on to fire 3,400 rounds in NGFS in Vietnam while her crew assisted 6,000 souls ashore in civil support.
In the summer of 1973 Taney was fitted with a special storm-tracking, first in the world, Doppler Radar antenna housed in a distinctive bulbous dome fitted atop her pilothouse. She would spend most of the 70s on Ocean Weather Station (OWS) Hotel.
Thousands of men, and in her latter days, women, walked her decks and risked their lives against all manner of enemies both two-legged and sent by Poseidon. They did so for their shipmates and their country, not to honor Andrew Jackson’s T-SEC.
None of her crew ever met the man. Honestly, most probably never read the first word of any of his legal opinions or speeches. Nonetheless, they are now deemed guilty of Dred Scot-by-proxy by people who know nothing of their sacrifice.
While the oldest ship in the fleet in 1984, the Coast Guard filmed a recruiting commercial partially on her deck– narrated by James Earl Jones– highlighting diversity in the service.
After 50 years of service, Cutter Taney decommissioned on 7 December 1986– the 45th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack– and by Act of Congress was turned over to the city of Baltimore, Maryland–Roger Brooke Taney’s hometown, for use as a museum ship, and as such was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
No one could argue that Thurgood Marshall was not “a colossus of U.S. history.” First appointed to the federal bench by President John F. Kennedy– a Navy man– Marshall came to the court after arguing cases such as Brown v Education before the nation’s high court, which in many ways helped move civil rights forward for the nation. However, while Marshall is interred at Arlington due to his service as a jurist and in the early 1950s investigated charges of racism in the United States armed forces, he was not a military man and had no connection to the Coast Guard, Navy or the cutter that is preserved in Baltimore that now bears his name in retirement. About his closest tie to the sea service was that one of his grandfathers, Isaiah Olive Branch Williams, volunteered and served aboard the brig USS Santiago de Cuba during the Civil War and the frigate USS Powhatan after.
In the end, should the historic vessel have its name– from a man that is now considered despicable but nonetheless one that was carried into battle across three wars– erased from history and replaced with one of a man who, although a hero, never had a connection to said vessel, to atone for the nation’s guilt when it comes to race relations?
As noted by Jay Sea Archeology on the very subject of the Taney’s name :
A ship and more importantly, its crew makes her own history and being a ship, a form of transportation, makes it part of the context of larger world history. The vessel is preserved because of her own history and not that of her namesake and continues to educate to this day. This ship is not something to condemn, its something to be proud of.
But then again, I guess none of that matters anymore.
Some 500 people, many former crewmates, have signed a petition against the move.
Insert random George Orwell quote here __