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‘Symbols that occupy our collective landscape matter’: Baltimore removes statue of slave owner from Canton park

The statue of Captain John O'Donnell was removed in Canton.

A statue dedicated in 1980 to Capt. John O’Donnell, an Irish-born merchant who enslaved people on his plantation in Canton, was removed Monday night by Baltimore City.

Mayor Brandon Scott, who ordered the removal, said it was a “historical moment” but far from the last in a city with no shortage of monuments, streets and schools named for people with oppressive legacies. He pledged to work with the city administrator to establish an official process for reviewing “these cruel monuments while continuing to promote equitable policies to right yesterday’s wrongs.”

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“Symbols that occupy our collective landscape matter,” Scott said in an interview Tuesday. “And I think what we set out to do in this administration is hear from communities and talk with and work with communities who are ... bringing those issues to us and trying to address them in the most efficient, effective and culturally aware way.”

Scott thanked the Canton Anti-Racism Alliance for its persistence and continuous work in “building an inclusive Baltimore.”

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A change.org petition began circulating last fall to remove the statue from what’s known as O’Donnell Square Park. It was signed by 921 people as of Tuesday afternoon.

The petition was the latest effort in a widespread reckoning involving monuments that honor people with ties to America’s racist past. It came as the Canton Community Association was studying ways to make the waterfront neighborhood more welcoming and inclusive.

Torbin Green, a volunteer who helps clean the park and board member of the association, said he was “elated” and felt “relieved” that the board and community succeeded in getting the statue removed after urging officials for nearly a year.

“While I would be working in the garden, I would look up and feel like I was on his plantation,” said Green, who’s been helping maintain the park and garden for nearly seven years. “I don’t need a slave owner sanding on a pedestal while I tend to the garden.”

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Green, who’s lived in Canton for 23 years, said he feels like the neighborhood removed the statue the “right way” and hopes this sets an example for how other communities should handle similar situations. He hopes in place of the statue, a pagoda might be built that would allow things like live music and movie nights.

“The history [of the statue] was whitewashed and we wanted to rectify that,” he said. “This is not taking away history. It’s not wiping it away.”

District 1 Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents the Canton area, said the removal of the statue is the “cumulative work of a lot of people in the area.”

“From this, we hope we can build a more vibrant, inclusive community,” he said. “I’m proud to stand with our community association and honor my neighbors and not our dark history.”

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.

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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