Who knew the folks at the Maryland Historical Trust were such masters of understatement? In their letter to the city of Baltimore complaining about Mayor Catherine Pugh’s unilateral decision to yank down four statues commemorating the Confederacy and the author of the Dred Scott decision, the group’s executive director conceded that returning the statues to their former locations is “perhaps untenable.”
The letter disputes the mayor’s contention that public safety concerns overrode a generation-old easement that gave the trust a say in the fate of the statues, but we’re pretty sure if someone tried to put them back, the threat to public order and at the very least the safety of the people re-erecting them would be undeniable. The case for removing them from their places of veneration was strong before Charlottesville; it’s overwhelming now.
The trust wants to have a representative on the city work group trying to figure out what to do with the statues. That’s certainly fine. But the idea that we can and should set a deadlines for finding a new home for the statues and erecting them is not realistic, necessary or helpful. The Pugh administration clearly has no intention of displaying them again on city property in any context, nor should it. Absent that, Baltimore is at the mercy of some other individual or entity to take them, and there is no guarantee that would accomplish the trust’s stated goal of not only preserving the statues but also maintaining “public access thereto.” Public access in Maryland is pretty much off the table; the availability of the statues to anyone who’ll take them has been well publicized, but no one in this area has stepped forward. Here and nationally, it’s clearly a buyer’s market for such artifacts.
There is an important story to be told about these statues as relics of the Lost Cause era during which the Confederacy was mythologized and the Jim Crow tools of maintaining white privilege were enacted here and elsewhere. The statues’ role in that history and the contemporary response to them would, indeed, be excellent subjects for an exhibit at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, but the museum’s director, Wanda Draper, wisely demurred at the suggestion that it house the artifacts themselves. The statues are enormous (particularly the Jackson/Lee double equestrian that previously stood in Wyman Park Dell), and even if they could physically fit within the Lewis museum, their scale would be overwhelming and would make it impossible to contextualize them amid the facility’s other holdings. Some photo displays would do the trick.
After Charlottesville, taking down the statues became a top city priority. People were organizing over social media to rip them down, and Ms. Pugh’s quick action in the face of what she knew were myriad logistical and legal complications at the very least prevented damage to the statues the historical trust is so keen to protect. Baltimore has taken steps to protect the statues from damage in storage, and insomuch as the trust has ideas to further do so, all the better. But finding a new way to display them for the public just isn’t high on the municipal to-do list. The trust’s letter concludes with a call for cooperation toward “a mutual resolution” of the issue but adds an implied warning should it not be satisfied with the city’s efforts, the trustees “will not concede that MHT lacks the authority under the easement to compel restoration” of the statues to their previous homes. If the Maryland Historical Trust really wants to sue the city over taking down monuments to white supremacy, it can be our guest.
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