An online petition signed by hundreds is calling on Baltimore officials to remove a 40-year-old statue dedicated to Capt. John O’Donnell, an Irish-born merchant who enslaved people on his plantation in Canton.
The petition is the latest effort in a widespread reckoning involving monuments that honor people with ties to America’s racist past. It comes as the Canton Community Association is studying ways to make the waterfront neighborhood more welcoming and inclusive.
Councilman Zeke Cohen, one of about 600 people who signed the Change.org petition as of Monday afternoon, said he looks forward to further conversations about the future of the O’Donnell Square statue. He said he wants to take actions that help the community become more united.
“Fair or unfair, Canton is perceived by much of Baltimore, and many Black neighbors that live here, as being insular and racist," said Cohen, a Democrat who represents the Southeast Baltimore neighborhood, in an online comment. “We have an opportunity to take a big step toward changing that perception.”
The petition calls on Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to remove the O’Donnell statue “with utmost urgency sending a message that Baltimore rejects racism past and present.”
“The statue represents an era driven by racism and white supremacy, and stands as a symbol of pain and oppression,” according to the petition.
A spokesman for Young did not respond to a request for comment.
City Council President Brandon Scott said Sunday that he remains resolute in the belief that “Baltimore needs a truth and reconciliation committee to look at statues, monuments and street names across our city — not just for this statue, but all of them.”
Scott, the city’s Democratic nominee for mayor, said the committee should include residents, historians and artists who would conduct a comprehensive review. The members also would work with the city school system to review school names.
The City Council passed legislation this month to rename an obelisk erected to honor explorer Christopher Columbus in Herring Run Park as the “Victims of Police Violence Monument" and to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples' Day. Young has not taken action on either bill.
Sheila Anderson, a Canton resident, said it breaks her heart, as a woman of color, to see the community glorifying a slave owner with the O’Donnell statue.
“I hate walking to the square and having to look at this guy standing there in all of his splendor,” said Anderson, an attorney. “Under no circumstances should this thing stay intact.”
Mark Edelson, president of the Canton Community Association, said several months ago that the group began to evaluate how the neighborhood can be more welcoming, including considering whether the statue should be removed and O’Donnell’s name stripped from the street and the square.
The association’s subcommittees will discuss their recommendations at a virtual meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. Members include Canton residents, as well as historians and people who have training in anti-racism. The online meeting is open to the public.
“The goal is for a conversation to occur among diverse community members, and to decide what we collectively, as a community, want to see happen,” Edelson said.
The O’Donnell statue was erected in 1980.
O’Donnell bought about 2,000 acres in 1786 along the waterfront and named the land Canton after the city in China. The country’s first census listed 36 enslaved people living at O’Donnell’s plantation, according to a 1978 book, “Historic Canton” by Norman G. Rukert Sr.
Historians believe O’Donnell’s was the first ship from Baltimore to reach China.
His ship, the Pallas, returned to the city in 1785 loaded with cargo, including canisters of teas, silk umbrellas, opium, table sets of blue china, satins and wallpaper. A newspaper listing for the sale caught George Washington’s eye, and he sent a friend with a list “if great bargains are to be had — my purchase depends entirely on the price.”
O’Donnell used those profits to buy the land for the plantation.
The merchant died in 1805 at age 56 in Canton as one of the wealthiest men in the United States, Rukert wrote. Born in 1749 in Limerick, Ireland, O’Donnell was buried in a graveyard at what is now Fayette and Greene streets. He was later reinterred in a family plot in Green Mount Cemetery.
The statue was created by Tylden W. Streett, a longtime teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art who died in 2019. Streett’s work also includes the Firefighter Memorial statue at City Hall Plaza and stone gargoyles on the National Cathedral in Washington.
Canton resident Doug Gambrinus said he understands the removal of monuments to Columbus or Confederate generals, but he doesn’t think the O’Donnell statue doesn’t rise to the same level.
“I haven’t been convinced that John O’Donnell was the kind of guy that was so evil and so corrupt, fighting for something that was so horrible that taking the statue down makes an important point,” Gambrinus said.
However, he said, further historical context should be added to the statue.
Lifelong Canton resident Royce C. Lamp Jr. also thinks the O’Donnell monument should stay.
“[Taking it] down because they believed he was a racist for being a slave owner or not doesn’t change the fact that they’re still living on the land of his plantation,” Lamp said. “So what are they really winning by taking down a statue?”
The Rev. Jim Hamilton is pastor of the Church on the Square, which overlooks the O’Donnell statue. He said the community must take historical stock of O’Donnell and other people who lived and worked in Canton over the centuries — and then decide whose lives represent the values of the community going forward.
“There is no moment of reaction to say, ‘We have to tear this sucker down,’” Hamilton said. “It is about how do we understand what we are inheriting and responding with the values we now understand to be real and elemental to what we want Baltimore to become and move toward that.”
Hamilton said the question is about more than a statue: “What do we want our future to look like?”
Latest Baltimore City
Baltimore Sun reporters Sameer Rao, McKenna Oxenden and Ben Leonard contributed to this article.