There’s a certain ambivalence about the portraits hanging in Harford County Circuit Courthouse in Bel Air of some of the “notable men” who owned slaves, served in the Confederate Army or supported the Confederate cause in the Civil War.
Nobody has come out and said these portraits should come down or be shuttled off to the Historical Society of Harford County for storage. Local historian Jim Chrismer says those whose faces have made the courthouse walls are there because of contributions to the county’s history that transcend their views on slavery and/or the Confederacy.
While that may be largely true, like it or not, Harford County, while not alone, doesn’t have the greatest record when it comes to race relations, pre- or post-Civil War, or in 2017 for that matter. According to the latest U.S. Census estimates, African-Americans account for about 14 percent of the 250,000 people living in Harford, but historically speaking they have been and continue to be under-represented in government, public education, law enforcement, community and leadership positions.
Without being judgmental, we believe we can say that given the county’s tortured history regarding slavery, the Civil War, school integration and civil rights, many local folks are still uncomfortable with the idea that all men and women are equal, regardless of the color of their skin, even if they won’t admit to it.
As for the courthouse gallery, we have a couple of suggestions:
First, something should be installed to recognize Sgt. Alfred Hilton, to date the county’s only native-born Medal of Honor recipient who fought for the Union in the Civil War and was an African-American. As no known photographs or other likenesses of Sgt. Hilton exist, a simple plaque would do.
Second, some organization, preferably the Maryland Courts System, should print a pamphlet/booklet that contains information of about each person whose portrait is hung in the courthouse, including any affiliations with slavery and or the Confederacy.
It’s not hindsight to say enslavement of another person is wrong, in our opinion, nor is it correct to maintain, as many apologists do, that the Civil War was a glorious cause fought for reasons other than to preserve slavery.
If all the portraits are going to remain hanging, and they probably will, let’s at least be clear that some of these folks contributions to Harford County shouldn’t be permitted to obscure any personal beliefs that today, at least, are unacceptable.