More than 126 years after his death, William Thompson Walters, a founder of the Baltimore art collection that bears his name, is finally getting his day of reckoning.
During their lives and after, William Walters and his son, Henry, were portrayed in a rosy light. They were praised as visionary philanthropists who developed and bequeathed the world-class art collection that’s among Charm City’s crown jewels. They were applauded for establishing public baths in Baltimore, though they were segregated, as the city was then. The two also donated fees from viewing their collection to the poor.
But research conducted by the Walters Art Museum made public Monday reveals a disturbing side to Baltimore’s benefactors: William and Henry Walters — particularly William — campaigned for the Confederate cause every way they could: politically, economically and by erecting potent symbols in public spaces.
The disclosures come as institutions such as the Johns Hopkins University and art museums in the U.S. and Europe are exploring and sharing shameful parts of their pasts.
”We didn’t just want to confront our history,” said the Walters’ director, Julia Marciari-Alexander. ”We wanted to embrace it. It’s important to make it clear how the museum’s practices have contributed to larger racial and societal inequities in this city and country.”
William Walters helped organize a protest that devolved into the infamous Pratt Street Riots of 1861, resulting in the Civil War’s first casualties. He advocated for a secessionist party ticket to represent Baltimore in the state legislature. The family left Baltimore for Paris in 1861 and remained there until 1865.
Their timing was propitious; one month after William Walters relocated to Europe, several associates were taken into custody by the Union government.
“There is little doubt that if Walters had remained in Baltimore, he also would have been arrested and imprisoned,” concludes a revised museum history that was to become live Monday on the museum’s website.
It’s not that William Walters’ past was a secret, exactly. It could be cobbled together from old newspaper clippings, Maryland State Archives and the Walters’ website. But, you had to know where to look.
The museum made the decision to present that history where everyone could see it.
As Marciari-Alexander put it: “Until now, our history has been hidden in plain sight.”
It’s the first step in a multipronged approach that’s been in the works since 2013 to make the museum a more diverse, accessible and welcoming institution.
The museum plans to expand its educational outreach to city schools and is devising internal pay equity procedures. Artwork labels are being rewritten to make explicit, for instance, the connection between an exquisite 18th-century Meissen chocolate pot and the enforced labor of Black and Indigenous people that brought chocolate and sugar to Europe.
“We think of it as shining new light through old windows,” said James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr., chairman of the museum’s board of trustees.
“We want visitors to understand the social, political, economic and political context that produced our artworks and to explain to people how their stories can be told by the paintings and sculptures in our collections.”
The Walters is among several art museums globally wrestling with problematic pasts.
New York’s Frick Collection’s online history describes the anti-union practices of founder Henry Clay Frick — culminating in a brutal 1892 strike in Pennsylvania that killed 10 and wounded 60.
In August, the British Museum caused a ruckus when it took a bust of its founding donor, Sir Hans Sloane, off its pedestal. Now, Sloane’s bust resides in a cabinet with objects exploring his links to the slave trade.
And in 2019, several prominent art institutions (including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) stopped accepting donations from the Sackler family, which is linked to the pharmaceutical company accused of fueling the opioid crisis.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that art museums aren’t as ancient as the treasures they preserve. But the first American art museums weren’t built until the 1870s, according to Jennifer Kingsley, director of the Johns Hopkins University’s program for museums and society. The Walters opened in 1934.
It wasn’t until 1969 that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization proposed guidelines for cultural heritage organizations, and the field began to coalesce around accreditation protocols and a set of enforceable ethical standards.
Scott Stulen, president of Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum and a board member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, said art museums have been slower to interrogate their pasts than history museums, where yesterday’s ugly practices are more difficult to obscure. For example, visitors who tour Monticello, founding father Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate, walk past shacks where enslaved people once lived.
The impetus for art museums to deal with difficult histories “has really accelerated in the past five years as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement,” Stulen said.
“It’s now happening with a lot more urgency. We’ve been talking a good game for a long time. Now, it’s time to start putting our ideals into action.”
At the Walters, that means describing in detail the Confederate activities of its art-buying benefactors. Between them, the father and son contributed 22,000 of the museum’s 36,000 objects.
During William Walters’ four years in Paris, his attention shifted from patronizing American artists to purchasing contemporary European and Asian artworks. About 200 pieces from the Walters collection were obtained during the family’s time abroad, museum officials said.
They include five artworks by the French sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye on such themes as war and peace that were erected in Mount Vernon Square in 1886.
But another sculpture commissioned by William Walters in 1887 has been removed from the square — the 7-foot bronze likeness of former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, who delivered the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision denying U.S. citizenship to Black Americans.
For 130 years, Taney’s statue was positioned in the north garden directly facing the Washington Monument. It came down in 2017 along with three other Confederate monuments on the orders of former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh.
“That statue was a devastating expression of William Walters’ beliefs about where Black people stood with respect to the constitution,” historian Martha S. Jones said. (It was Jones’ research that revealed that Johns Hopkins, who founded the university carrying his name, owned enslaved people.)
“In my mind, connecting the dots between the Walterses’ deep sympathies for the Confederacy and how that shaped the public landscape is of great consequence,” she said. “The actions of the founders have relevance for the present day.”
Henry Walters was a teenager during the Civil War, but as an adult he celebrated the Confederacy. In 1909, he donated funds to erect a statue in North Carolina honoring George Davis, former attorney general for the Confederate states. The city of Wilmington removed the monument last year.
Jones praises the Walters and the Baltimore Museum of Art for their efforts to come to terms with the past; last fall, the BMA’s board of trustees made a controversial attempt to raise $65 million to fund several diversity initiatives, including increasing its minimum wage to $20 an hour, by selling three paintings.
“I admire the Walters and the BMA precisely because they are institutions that have actively grappled with the new urgencies of the 21st century,” Jones said.
“They might not be grappling with them perfectly or thoroughly. But, they are not content to give in to some happy myths and notions of the past that don’t encourage them to be the living institutions that are needed today.”