Baltimore lacked authority to take down Confederate statues, and state says it could — but won't — order them restored

The Maryland Historical Trust has concluded that Baltimore officials didn’t have the legal authority to remove three monuments to the Confederacy and, while acknowledging it doesn’t plan to, the state agency reserved the right to order the city to put them back.

Elizabeth Hughes, director of the Maryland Historical Trust, shared those conclusions in an Oct. 20 letter to the head of Baltimore’s architectural preservation agency. She cited a 1984 contract between the state and the city that gave the trust final say on any changes to the monuments.

Hughes wrote that the state trustees “will not concede that MHT lacks the authority … to compel restoration.”

“That said ... the Trustees believe that the best way forward is for MHT and the City to work cooperatively towards a mutual resolution,” she wrote.

In the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., in August, Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh ordered the removal of four statues in Baltimore, including those commemorating Confederate generals, soldiers and sailors, and women, and one of Roger Taney, the chief justice of the Supreme Court who wrote the Dred Scott decision declaring black Americans had no civil rights.

Pugh’s staff concluded that she had broad authority to order the monuments taken down under her powers to safeguard the public and under the city parks department director’s responsibility to protect the monuments.

Two of the statues already had been vandalized. Red paint had been thrown on the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Bolton Hill, while someone had scrawled “Black Lives Matter” on the base of the Lee-Jackson Monument in Wyman Park Dell.

Crews began taking the monuments down late on a Tuesday night with no notice to the public. The same week, the state removed a statute of Taney on the State House grounds in Annapolis.

The debate about what to do with statues honoring Confederates has roiled the country. They were put up long after the Civil War during an era of racial segregation and are viewed by many historians and others as a public display of white supremacy. But supporters of keeping the monuments in place say they’re a part of the country’s history that should remain on public display.

City Solicitor Andre Davis said the city had not responded formally to the state trust.

“We remain confident that an acceptable resolution of the different perspectives on these issues is within reach,” he said in a statement.

On August 16 — the morning after the monuments had been removed — city officials sent a letter to the state trust informing it that they believed the city’s contract with the state about the monuments didn’t apply because the situation was an emergency. The contract also doesn’t apply to the statue of Taney.

The letter was provided to The Baltimore Sun under a Public Information Act request. The state trust provided Hughes’ letter in response to questions about the city letter.

The future of the monuments remains unclear. They are in storage while Baltimore officials try to find them a permanent home.

In her letter, Hughes asked that the city find somewhere to put the monuments within nine months and secure their installation within 18 months.

“While the Trustees appreciate that the issues concerning relocation are complex, they also believe that establishing benchmarks are imperative to seeing this matter through to resolution,” she wrote.

Other documents the city released suggest officials have had a difficult time finding a place to send the monuments.

Lincoln Memorial University, a college in Tennessee that has an Abraham Lincoln museum, had expressed interest in two of the monuments. But a spokeswoman for the college said its plans have changed.

The city approached the Reginald F. Lewis Museum about housing some of the monuments, but its director, Wanda Draper, said it wouldn’t be able to accommodate them, the documents show.

“We do not have the capacity either in our building or outside to accommodate a monumental statute,” Draper wrote in an email to the city. “We believe that the story needs to be told, but this statute would be the largest artifact in our collection.”

A man who said he was opening an outdoor museum in Austin, Texas, called “the Gallery of Confederate Scoundrels” wrote an email expressing an interest in the statues. The documents do not show whether city officials followed up with him.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who sponsored a unanimous City Council resolution calling for the Confederate monuments to be torn down a day before they were dismantled, said any order from the trust to put them back would be met with resistance in Baltimore.

“I think the mayor did the right thing,” Scott said of removing the monuments before seeking approval from the trust. “For the trust to even say they can order them back up shows they are extremely insensitive to the issue. While we understand historical preservation, they have to remember these are monuments to terrorists and traitors who wanted to be keep people enslaved. … I just wish they hadn’t even said that to put that out there.”

The documents also underscore how quickly the city acted to take down the monuments.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Pugh’s predecessor, created a commission to study the monuments in 2015, but she did not make a final decision about what to do with them before leaving office.

After the violence in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, Pugh quickly faced questions about her plans.

At about 8 p.m. on Aug. 14, before the mayor issued the order, one of her aides sent her a lengthy memo detailing how complicated moving the monuments would be.

“You will see there are many aspects to research,” wrote Colin Tarbert, an official in the mayor’s office, summarizing a meeting earlier in the day of a working group on the monuments. “I’d like to ensure you are fully briefed on what we know and do not know before you make any public comments.”

“Given the controversy this will likely bring and the potential for litigation, I want to get this right.”

But the following morning the situation had changed. The Police Department warned Pugh that activists were threatening to tear the monuments down if they weren’t removed, according to another letter the state trust provided.

So, the city decided to act right away, removing the statues in the early hours of Aug. 16.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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