Scholar as Change Agent: Muller’s Ruffin Research Spurs Progress

October 23, 2023

A 2007 conversation with Orange County Commissioner Sally Greene, an independent scholar who has taught as an adjunct professor at Carolina Law, and friend of Eric L. Muller, Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor of Law in Jurisprudence and Ethics at UNC School of Law, sparked Muller’s research into the legacy of Thomas Ruffin, Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court from 1833-1852. Greene had begun focusing on Ruffin’s legacy in connection with his legacy at her church, which was founded on land donated by Ruffin in Hillsborough, N.C. 

Knowing of Muller’s interest in memorializing past injustices and perpetrators, Greene mentioned Chief Justice Ruffin’s authorship of the State v. Mann decision, which brutally authorized violence against slaves despite Ruffin portraying himself as anguished. This prompted Muller to investigate Ruffin’s personal involvement with and perspectives on slavery, given the availability of Ruffin’s archived papers at the Southern Historical Collection.

Muller explained that for much of the 20th century, only a narrow understanding of Ruffin’s life was common, focusing primarily on his State v. Mann decision, which generations took at face value despite its brutal upholding of violence against slaves.

Greene’s focus on reevaluating Ruffin’s legacy and memorials in light of his State v. Mann decision prompted Muller to delve deeper. Through researching the archived papers, they uncovered Ruffin’s vicious actions, including beating an enslaved woman named Bridget and repeatedly separating enslaved families.

Their research was vital in decisions regarding Ruffin’s memorials. As Muller asserted, “Our research was regularly cited in discussions that led to the statue and portrait removal. Without it, there simply would have been no basis for reconsidering Ruffin’s legacy.”

Furthermore, Lydia, who Ruffin claimed could face harsh punishment in the case State v. Mann, is now recognized with a highway historical marker in Edenton, N.C. thanks to Muller’s research. Muller cited Greene’s efforts to inform the public about Lydia and the Mann case as a major factor in how emotionally moving the unveiling event was in September. Greene recounted Lydia’s shooting and the case that followed during the ceremony, and Judge James Wynn of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit underlined the importance of remembering victims like Lydia in legal history and the fact that judges may influence how cases are understood. 

While acknowledging Ruffin’s achievements, such as his contribution to the growth of North Carolina’s economy, Muller questioned whether Ruffin merited reverence considering his cruel treatment of slaves, saying, “if we’re going to revere people from that era, we should be revering those who were at the best end of that spectrum.”

Muller wrote an article on his findings, dedicating his work to Ruffin’s victims, including the slaves Bridget, Dick, Noah, and November. In reflecting on the unveiling of the Lydia historical marker, Muller said “We need more recognition of the lives of the Lydias of American legal history, and less of the Ruffins.”

Muller urges young scholars to pursue research that intertwines their passions and benefits the public, once they have attained job security through more conventional academic work. He advises that more established scholars should seek opportunities for their research to “reach and touch people outside the academy,” stating that connecting with people impacted by his work has meant more to him than academic reviews and exchanges. Muller’s own research exemplifies how uncovering difficult historical truths can shape society’s understanding and spur reevaluation of injustices to stimulate progress. His scholarship stands as an inspiration for budding academics during research week and beyond.

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His pro-slavery rhetoric was extreme. And his portrait dominates our top NC courtroom.

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