National conversation on Confederate symbology lands in Baltimore, scrawled in yellow paint

Baltimore statue for Confederate soldiers painted with "Black Lives Matter"

Amid a national conversation about Confederate symbology following the fatal shooting of nine black church members by a white man in South Carolina — an attack authorities say was racially motivated — a statue honoring Confederate soldiers in Baltimore had a singular message scrawled across its side.

"Black Lives Matter," the message read in yellow paint Monday, five days after the shootings at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston became the latest flashpoint in a growing national dialogue around race.

The words covered an etched message on the statue in Bolton Hill that was erected by the Maryland Daughters of the Confederacy in February 1903 and reads, "To The Soldiers and Sailors of Maryland In The Service Of The Confederate States of America, 1861-1865."

The "Black Lives Matter" message, invoked often during recent protests against police brutality in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, was also spray-painted this week on the stone pedestal of a Confederate statue in Charleston.

Hundreds of people have marched in Charleston and in South Carolina's capital, Columbia, this week to protest the Confederate flag's placement in front of the Capitol building there, reviving long-debated arguments about whether Confederate symbology represents heritage, racism or state rights.

On Monday, those who live, work and study in Bolton Hill had mixed reactions to the "Black Lives Matter" message being written on the statue across the street from the campus of Maryland Institute College of Art near the intersection of West Mount Royale and West Lafayette avenues — one of several such statues devoted to the Confederacy in Baltimore.

Aida Ramirez, a 20-year-old junior at MICA who lives a couple blocks from the statue, is from Texas and is a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy. In fact, she said, she is studying at MICA in part thanks to a scholarship from the group, and wrote about her membership in a scholarship essay.

At the same time, the Confederate flag leaves her with "a lot of mixed emotions" as a Latina and "really uncomfortable sometimes."

"I understand its historical significance but I definitely think that it should be left in the past," she said on the corner near the statue, sorting through her own thoughts on the issue. "Being a person of color and a Daughter of the Confederacy is weird."

Kristen Bowden, 42, who runs "faith formation" programs for the Corpus Christi Church at the intersection, said she has evolved on the matter since moving from Charleston, where she grew up, to Baltimore four years ago.

Before moving to Baltimore, the Confederate flag was just something she grew up seeing, and it "never really bothered" her, she said. Now, in the wake of the shootings and the nation's broader dialogue around race, she thinks differently, she said.

"Until this, I very clearly saw the flag as a symbol of state rights, because that is what I was taught," she said. "Now I'm able to see past that and see that it's more a symbol of hate."

This past weekend, Bowden said she was back in Charleston visiting family. She heard the churches in Charleston — known for its steepled skyline — were all ringing their bells in unison on Sunday morning. She called Corpus Christi’s paster, the Rev. Marty Demek, and told him — and Corpus Christi rang its bells, too.

"I was so happy," she said.

Clyde Johnson, MICA's assistant dean of diversity and intercultural development, said he has already been working the subject of "how we deface" public spaces in our society into plans for student discussions next semester, following the unrest after Gray’s death and an incident this year in which a racial epithet was written in an elevator.

The writing on the Confederate statue will be another example to use, he said. "Even with a positive message, it isn't good," he said.

Johnson said he seeks to turn horrible incidents like the shootings in Charleston into teachable moments, to talk with students about how to be "politically active" but also "politically savvy," to protest without destruction.

"My time is really spent with my students, who are forward thinking, to help them intellectualize this — even through their art work," he said.

krector@baltsun.com

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