Entering the area Baltimore police had cordoned off last night as contractors prepared to take down the Lee-Jackson Monument in Wyman Park Dell felt like walking into a dream.
First my husband and I had to move past an officer standing guard at the intersection of 29th and Howard streets, the light from a smoking flare on the ground and the flashing blue and red on the top of the car cutting through the fog.
It was around 1 a.m., and we had stumbled into the whole thing by accident. We’d been out celebrating a friend’s birthday, heard that the city had begun taking the monuments down under the cover of darkness and decided on a whim to see it with our own eyes.
People trickled in slowly as news spread through tweets and Facebook posts and texts. Soon there were over 30 people: couples in sweats and hoodies, people in going-out clothes from wherever they’d been earlier in the night, a few folks with their dogs. Some people moved here and there, talking and joking, others stood still, watching and waiting. Lines of bright yellow police tape kept anyone from getting too close. A light the contractors were using illuminated the statue in brief snapshots: the silhouette of a horse; the words “black lives matter” spray painted on the monument’s base; the Madre Luz, a statue of a pregnant black woman that had been stationed next to the Lee/Jackson monument in counter protest since the weekend.
I was tired, but as a black woman, as a mother, I was also unexpectedly overcome with emotion.
Several generations of black people have walked by the statue since it was erected in 1948. I’ve walked past the statue myself, not giving it much thought. It was antiquated background scenery to me. But it was also a lie. The statue stood for the stories crafted decades after the Civil War ended as a way to excuse racism and boost the people who most wanted the institution of slavery to stay just the way it was.
The people who wanted that statue there had the money and resources to have it crafted expertly, they had the power to make sure that their version of history was amplified while the other, truer version of history was silenced.
Knowing this, watching the spotlight swing over the body of the Madre Luz statue, skin black as night and belly full of baby, felt like a win, if only a small one.
Yes, racism is a spreading thing. I’m in my 30s. Many of the men and women who showed up for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., were younger than I am, and they were bursting with hate. The man who is accused of plowing his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, is 20.
The president of this country boosted those people and their hate, attempting to silence the rest of us. That’s true. That’s today.
But also there were the words “black lives matter” spelled out right there in front of me — the closest I’ve ever seen to a monument to that sentiment. Baltimore has a vibrant community of activists and protesters that make it very clear that they do matter, but to see a solid, physical testament was edifying.
When the contractors finally lifted the statue, the crowd collectively gave a whoop, and then there was the beep-beep-beep of the construction equipment, and the quiet chatter resumed.
Last night was one step, but there are many more to come. What will happen to the statues now that they are no longer on display? Mayor Catherine Pugh has suggested moving them while others, such as Councilman Brandon Scott, are in favor of melting them down. I would rather see them destroyed. They were born of a racist impulse, and I see no place for them today. There are other, better ways to teach and to honor the past. Let’s start looking at those and memorialize things actually worth saving.