Jim Chrismer, one of Harford County’s prominent historians, does not have a problem with keeping portraits of Harford Countians who served in the Confederate military in the Harford County Courthouse in Bel Air.
One must consider the whole person and their contributions to Harford County, not just their time with the opposing side in the Civil War, according to Chrismer.
“Just generally, you have to do what a historian does, and that is approach an item, an event, with caution rather than rushing in and immediately getting on the latest trend,” Chrismer said in a recent interview.
James Thornton, a former member of the Harford County Board of Education who has been active in preserving local African-American history, said he favors the removal of Confederate monuments, which has been happening across the country in the wake of deadly white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Va.
“It’s really, in many ways, unfortunate were still reliving the tragedy of 600,000 to 700,000 people who lost their lives during that conflict,” Thornton said of ongoing national debates about the Civil War and symbols of the Confederate States of America that still exist, such as its battle flag and monuments to soldiers, sailors, generals and civilians.
“At the end of the day I don’t have a strong view that the portraits should come down or be taken out [of the courthouse],” Thornton said.
He said Harford County and Maryland were divided during the Civil War. Residents served in the Confederate and Union military.
Thornton, who is African American and grew up in Alabama, suggested the portraits in the courthouse reflect all Harford Countians who took part in the Civil War, including women and people of color such as Sgt. Alfred B. Hilton, a member of the U.S. Colored Troops and the only native of Harford County to earn the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor.
Though a number of efforts locally in recent years resulted in a local park being named for Hilton, as well as an Interstate 95 overpass, there is no portrait Hilton, whose ancestors were freed slaves, in the courthouse gallery.
“I’d rather see us spend a lot more energy and a lot more focus in trying to make sure all people are given an opportunity to enjoy what this country has to offer,” Thornton said.
Thornton, who is retired from the former MBNA banking corporation, has lived in Bel Air for about 30 years. He made an unsuccessful run for County Council president in 2014. He serves as treasurer of the Hosanna School Museum board.
The Hosanna School in Darlington is a preserved Freedmen’s Bureau school. Hosanna and other schools were established for African-American children after the Civil War.
The museum’s parent organization acquired another Freedmen’s Bureau school, McComas Institute, a nearby cemetery and Mount Zion United Methodist Church, all in Joppa, in 2016
Thornton said Harford is “a great county in many ways,” but it could be even greater if officials pursued “diversity and inclusion, and we gave all people a chance to take on leadership roles.”
Confederate monuments were being removed even before the violence in Charlottesville, during which one person died — the rally was meant to be a protest against the city’s plan to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from a public park — but the process has accelerated since the Aug. 11 and 12 events.
Monuments to Confederate military and civilians in Baltimore and one in Annapolis to Roger B. Taney, the Maryland native and Supreme Court chief justice who authored the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857 stating slaves should not be considered U.S. citizens were removed last month
Chrismer, who is white, expressed disappointment with the removal of a statue honoring Lee and Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from Wyman Park Dell near the Baltimore Museum of Art.
He called the monument “a wonderful work of art” and “one of the best-known, beautiful equestrian statues in the United States.”
There has not yet been a call to remove portraits of figures such as Brig Gen. James Jay Archer, or James Watters, a Confederate cavalry soldier who later served as a Harford judge, from the courthouse.
Judge Angela Eaves, the administrative judge for the Harford Circuit Court, declined to comment on the matter and referred questions to the Administrative Office of the Courts for Maryland. Eaves is Harford’s first and only African-American judge.
The state judiciary declined a request for an interview with The Aegis, Molly Kalifut, a spokesperson for the AOC, stated in an Aug. 29 email.
“I don’t have any problem with the portraits in the courthouse,” Chrismer said.
Chrismer, a Bel Air resident, editor of the Harford Historical Bulletin and retired history teacher at The John Carroll School, said he would have a problem if there were portraits of Confederate sympathizers or supporters who were known primarily for evil deeds such as slave trading, terrorizing African-Americans after the war or, in the case of Bel Air’s John Wilkes Booth, assassinating the president of the United States.
Booth, a well-known actor and Confederate sympathizer, killed President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, days after Lee’s army surrendered to Union forces in Appomattox Court House, Va.
Booth’s family lived in Tudor Hall east of Bel Air, and his father, Junius, and brother, Edwin, were the most famous actors of the 19th century.
“I would have a problem, a major problem, if John Wilkes Booth were portrayed in the courthouse,” Chrismer said. “He was a great actor, of course, but his actions were of such infamy that he should just not appear in public.”
Chrismer said a portrait of Edwin Booth, which hangs in the courthouse, is “very appropriate.”
“His family, indeed, Tudor Hall, the home in Churchville, is significant because of its association – not with that one member of the Booth family but the family that was the best known Shakespearean [actor] family of their era,” Chrismer said.
Chrismer said he would take issue with portraits of Harford Countians who traded slaves, were slave catchers or were “especially cruel to slaves.”
There were about 200 slaveholders in Harford County before the Civil War, about 1,800 slaves and about 3,600 free people of color, according to Chrismer.
“If they were known for selling slaves South that, I think, puts them in a greatly different category and warrants their removal,” Chrismer said. “I’m certainly not excusing slavery, but that puts them in a solely different category.”
He said he is OK with the portrait of Thomas Hays being in the courthouse, even though he and his brother, N.W.S. Hays, were the “single largest slave owners in Harford County in 1860.”
Chrismer noted Thomas Hays, a prominent landowner and attorney, and his family were “very much involved in founding and governing the Town of Bel Air for many years.”
“So you have to look at the larger context,” Chrismer said.
Chrismer is also involved in preserving Harford’s African-American history — he supports the efforts of Campaign 42 to conduct research at the Historical Society of Harford County for the group’s digital publication on local black history.
A number of Harford Countains supported the Union side during the Civil War. Hanging in the courthouse are portraits of men who served in the U.S. military such as Union Col. Edwin Hanson Webster, who was an attorney, state legislator and U.S. congressman, and Augustus W. Bradford, Maryland’s pro-Union, anti-slavery governor from 1862 to 1866, Chrismer said.
A portrait of John Adams Webster, who is not related to Edwin Webster, also hangs in the courthouse. John Webster, who was among the defenders of Fort McHenry in Baltimore from British attack in 1814, had two sons in the Union military and one son in the Confederate military, and he was the father-in-law of at least two Confederates, Chrismer said.
He said Webster was the epitome of a “long-established, big [Harford County] family whose family was severed by the Civil War — he had daughters married to Confederates; he had daughters married to pro-Union people.”