City legislation would rename Robert E. Lee Park

City Council takes step to change name of Robert E. Lee Park, but question of 100-year-old will arises.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is taking the first legal step to strip a popular county-operated park of its Confederate ties.

Young says he will file a bill Monday to change the name of Robert E. Lee Park, which is owned by the city, to Lake Roland Park. But some say a woman who died 100 years ago could be standing in his way.

Elizabeth B. Garrett White, a wealthy Baltimorean, required when she died in 1917 that the proceeds from the sale of her Mount Vernon Place estate be used to erect a monument for Lee, a Confederate general who spent time in the city during White's lifetime.

"If it were me, and my will, I would haunt them so terribly that they would change their minds after a week," said Carolyn Billups, Maryland division president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Young said he's prepared to take on the challenge. He said "racially divisive" Confederate symbols have no place in the city.

"We're doing it," Young said. "We've changed names of schools. We'll defend changing the name. You can go around the city of Baltimore, and all around the country — names of prominent people have disappeared, have come off buildings."

The name of the 450-acre park, just north of the city line off Falls Road, came into question after last month's massacre of nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., by an alleged white supremacist.

The killings sparked a renewed debate nationally about whether Confederate icons are symbols of hate that should be removed from public spaces or reminders that carry historical significance. Lawmakers in South Carolina responded to the mass shooting by bringing down the battle flag that long flew on the State House grounds there.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz called on the city to change the park's name, preferring one more sensitive to the diverse population that uses the space. The county has made $6 million in upgrades to the park since taking over operations in 2009.

"The park is centered around historic Lake Roland, and the name Lake Roland Park better reflects this open space treasure," Kamenetz said in a statement Friday. "We look forward to making a joint announcement with the city about the name change in the near future."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake supports changing the park's name. Her spokesman, Kevin Harris, said she has not settled on a new name she'd prefer, but she's "not going to stand in the way" of the council's legislation. Harris said Rawlings-Blake would sign a bill renaming the space Lake Roland Park if the legislation makes it to her desk.

Rawlings-Blake has convened a commission of historians, community organizations and art experts to evaluate the merits of removing Confederate monuments in Baltimore or allowing them to stay. The commission, which has not met, is expected to make recommendations by the end of the year, officials have said.

Personally, the mayor believes Confederate symbols have caused a lot of pain and in many cases are more appropriate in a museum setting, Harris said. "But she also believes we should be thoughtful about how we go about this, and that we make sure we understand the history of each of those symbols," he said.

Gov. Larry Hogan has initiated steps to get rid of license plates carrying an image of the Confederate battle flag that are registered to about 175 vehicles and motorcycles in the state. This week, he asked the attorney general to take action to dissolve a 1997 injunction that required the state to issue the controversial plates.

People visiting Robert E. Lee Park on Friday had mixed feelings about changing its name.

Isaiah Millings II said people need to learn about the history of Confederate symbols, especially the battle flag. But the 31-year-old Essex man, who was born and raised in Baltimore, didn't think the city should jump to make the change.

"I honestly don't think the name should be changed. Even though it's an ugly scar ... it's still a part of our history," Millings said. "Whether it's good or bad, it's America. It's what makes America, America."

To Sarawak Fultze, changing the name shouldn't be a matter of debate.

"All of the old stuff in the past should go. Just go ahead and change it," said Fultze, a 66, West Baltimore native. "They took the flag down in South Carolina, so that's a steppingstone."

The park got its name in 1945 when Robert Garrett — a great-nephew of White, the heiress, and executor of her will — successfully petitioned the Circuit Court to have the money from his aunt's bequest used for city recreation at Lake Roland. Garrett was chairman of the city's recreation commission at the time. (The Garrett family were then part- owners of The Baltimore Sun.)

White's will had instructed that the proceeds from the sale of her property go to the erection of a statue of Lee in Druid Hill Park.

Lee moved to Baltimore in 1848 when the War Department assigned him to oversee the construction of the still-unfinished Fort Carroll. He was a distinguished veteran of the Mexican-American War, and went on to become popular in Baltimore society.

He left the city about four years later to become superintendent of West Point, but he visited many times after the Civil War. He died in 1870, five years after the Civil War ended.

City Solicitor George Nilson said the council has the legal standing to change the park's name, despite the wishes in White's will.

Thirty years passed between White's death and the court ruling allowing the money to establish open space around Lake Roland.

Nilson said as executor of the will, Garrett essentially said, "Let's go out and buy some property and we'll make a deal with the city where we'll call it Robert E. Lee Park." But that "deal can be changed," Nilson said. "That doesn't bind us forever.

"It was named by the council, and it can be renamed by the council," Nilson said.

Billups, of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, said if the city changes the name of the park it ought to give the money back to White's family — at today's value. She said her comments reflect her personal opinion, not an official position of the group.

"I am absolutely concerned about everything that's happening lately," said Billups, who lives in St. Mary's County. "There is an awful lot of ranting going on, and a tremendous amount of misinformation."

Billups said she sees Lee as a "very dedicated man both in family life and in his military career. He was a superb leader, and he was the epitome, in my eyes, of a good soldier and good man."

Paula Monopoli, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said questions over White's will present an interesting question. While some might disagree with the city's right to change the name, she said a judge would have to decide whether any challengers have legal standing.

At first blush, Monopoli said, the question could come down to the original intent of White's will. She said it would be wise for the city to petition the court to see if the council can change the park's name.

"Her original intent is pretty clear: to create a memorial for Robert E. Lee," Monopoli said.

Despite the questions, Councilman Robert Curran said he wants the council to act.

"I believe it is time for us — all the citizens of the United States — to move past the Civil War," Curran said. "Obviously, [Lee] was a great American in the eyes of a lot of folks, but is it appropriate?"

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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