Status of Confederate statues to be reviewed in Baltimore

Movement to remove Confederate symbols reaches Baltimore, where commission will review statues.

Some would keep them, some would tear them down. The mayor said Tuesday the city needs to talk about the future of Confederate monuments in the city.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced that she will convene a commission of experts representing art, history and community organizations to lead research and public conversation about the city's Confederate monuments and other historical assets.

"I believe it is important for us to take a thoughtful, reasoned approach to these Confederate-era monuments, rather than rush to simply 'tear them down' or 'keep them up' in the heat of the moment," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement.

The panel would be charged with making recommendations that could include preservation, new signs, relocation or removal by the end of the year.

The measure plays into a dialogue taking place nationally after the shooting of nine black members of a South Carolina church by a white man who was photographed with the Confederate battle flag and reportedly said he wanted to start a "race war."

The mass shooting sparked conversations and action to address racism — and its symbols — across the country, including calls for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol and the renaming of the city-owned Robert E. Lee Park in Baltimore County.

Baltimore has at least nine monuments with ties to the Confederate era among 80 military statues, according to a 2014 state catalog of such monuments.

They include a statue honoring Confederate soldiers erected in 1903 by the Maryland Daughters of the Confederacy in the Bolton Hill neighborhood. After the Charleston shooting, the phrase "Black Lives Matter" was written on the statue's base in yellow paint.

Carolyn Billups, Maryland division president for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, praised the mayor's move to hold public conversations about the future of monuments, though her personal opinion would be to "leave all of the Confederate monuments alone."

"I think discussion is the best thing for all parties involved, to exchange ideas and share points of view," Billups said. "I bet a lot of people's minds would be changed, and they would want them to stay, if they learned the history behind them. Right now, people are just focusing on the flag and the word 'Confederate.'"

Billups said she took the defacing of the statue on Mount Royal Avenue personally.

"It broke my heart," she said.

The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, said he would prefer the mayor take decisive action with regard to the monuments.

"She has the ability to show some leadership in the city of Baltimore to rid the city immediately of these monuments, which are symbols of oppression, racism and slavery," Witherspoon said.

"You don't see monuments to people who were involved in the Holocaust," he added. "And if we did, our Jewish brothers and sisters would show righteous indignation in demanding that these monuments — celebrations of these people that put them in bondage — be removed. We should, too, with the same level of fervor."

Rawlings-Blake said the commission will "thoroughly research the background and significance of each of these items and make a recommendation that recognizes and respects the history that we need future generations to understand."

The commission, which has not been named, also will be expected to research how other cities handled issues regarding Confederate-era monuments, and to seek input from independent experts as well as representatives of the community and the public.

The commission's recommendations are expected in the next six months.

Coppin State University history professor Roger Davidson Jr. said that for history's sake, he believes "the mayor is taking a very careful step, and it's a step in the right direction."

But he also anticipates that the public debate will reveal a decades-old struggle about what the Confederate flag represents.

"A lot of people cannot grapple with the sole fact that the root cause of the Civil War was slavery," he said. "Historians don't make this up. We go to the source, to the record."

Davidson, like President Barack Obama, believes the Confederate battle flag belongs in a museum. But he said tearing down monuments would be "horrible," because they could be expanded upon to explain different accounts of the time they represent.

Davidson suspects the commission will grapple most with people who feel the monuments reflect their way of life — for one side, a source of pain, and the other, a source of pride.

"We're dealing with history and memory here," he said. "But the history is subjective at some point."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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