Maryland State House Trust votes to remove Taney statue

A key state panel voted Wednesday to remove a statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney from the grounds of the State House in Annapolis.

In a vote taken by e-mail, three members of the four-member State House Trust voted in favor of removing the statue of Taney, a Marylander who was the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery and said black Americans could not become citizens.

It was not immediately clear when Taney’s bronze likeness would be moved from its perch overlooking the front lawn of the State House, or what would happen to the statue afterward.

Voting in favor of removing the statue were Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who represents Gov. Larry Hogan on the State House Trust; House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Charles L. Edson, who represents the Maryland Historical Trust.

The fourth member of the panel, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, did not immediately cast a vote Wednesday evening. Miller has said he does not support removing the statue, but will not try to block its removal.

“It was our understanding that there would be a public meeting and vote on this and to discuss other issues,” Jake Weissmann, Miller’s deputy chief of staff, said in a statement. “That’s where we last left it.”

Officials around the country have been re-examining the display of flags, statues and memorials associated with the Confederacy since the white supremacist Dylann Roof shot nine African-Americans to death in a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. A rally by Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., that turned deadly Saturday has added urgency to the discussion.

Hours before the State House Trust vote, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh oversaw the overnight removal of four monuments in the city. They included a statue of Taney.

Edson, a retired attorney from Montgomery County, said he re-read the 1857 Dred Scott opinion as he weighed the fate of the Taney statue in Annapolis. Even when considered in the context of the time it was written, he said, it still stands out as “probably one of the worst Supreme Court decisions ever.”

“The opinion was terribly, terribly racist, insensitive, and then had a very historically bad effect,” Edson said. “I won’t say it caused the Civil War, but it certainly heightened tensions.”

Edson said there are other ways to remember Taney and understand the Dred Scott decision. He suggested the statue should be displayed elsewhere.

“It was a totally unwarranted and bigoted, prejudiced opinion,” he said, “and such a person should not be honored with a statue on the State House lawn.”

In his five years serving on the State House Trust, Edson said, the Taney decision is the most significant issue the group has faced. The group rarely meets in person, he said; it generally casts votes by email on issues such as approving new landscaping or giving the go-ahead for performances inside the building.

The State House Trust is asked to consider all potential changes to the historical building and its grounds. Maryland’s State House is the oldest state capitol in the country still used by a legislature.

Support for removing Taney’s statue from the State House grounds grew after the violence Saturday in Charlottesville. A counter-protester was killed when a Neo-Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a crowd, and two police officers monitoring the scene died when their helicopter crashed.

Busch, a Democrat, weighed in Monday, saying that leaving the Taney statue in place “would send a message that we condone what took place, that slavery is all right.”

Hogan, a Republican, followed on Tuesday, saying that Taney should be removed as soon as possible.

“While we cannot hide from our history — nor should we — the time has come to make clear the difference between properly acknowledging our past and glorifying the darkest chapters in our history,” he said in a statement.

Speaking to reporters in Annapolis on Wednesday, Hogan declined to elaborate.

“I made a comment about that and said I supported that,” Hogan said.

As of Wednesday evening, Hogan had not posted about the Taney statue on his official Facebook page or the Facebook page of his political organization, Change Maryland. He often uses the pages to reach voters and tout accomplishments.

More than 600 people flooded Hogan’s official Facebook page on Tuesday and Wednesday, using a post about job growth to post comments about the Taney decision.

Most opposed the governor’s stance, saying he was a “Republican in name only,” had lost his “moral fiber” or was caving to pressure to “change history.”

Some commentors praised Hogan for “doing the right thing.”

Hogan previously opposed removing the Taney statue, which has stood on the front lawn of the State House since 1872, surviving multiple efforts to remove it.

When Hogan announced plans to recall more than 100 Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates in 2015, he called removing monuments linked to the Confederacy “political correctness run amok.”

Hogan, Busch and Miller endorsed installing statues of abolitionist leaders Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass inside the State House.

A statue of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American appointed to the high court, was added to Lawyers Mall, on the other side of the State House, in 1996. Lawyers Mall is in the rear of the State House, but it’s a more visible and heavily trafficked spot than where the Taney statue sits.

The Taney statue sat undisturbed Wednesday looking out toward Annapolis City Dock. Unlike monuments in Baltimore, which were vandalized before being removed, the Taney in Annapolis was untouched. There was a more visible security presence around it Wednesday as police officers patrolled periodically.

The state’s Department of Legislative Services estimated last year that it would cost $77,000 to remove the statue and another $5,000 per year to store it.

pwood@baltsun.com

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