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Confederate monuments are coming down. Now, what do we do about memorials to slaveholders like Washington and Jefferson?

The Washington Monument and the now-empty plinth that used to hold a statue of Roger Taney in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. 06-25-20
The Washington Monument and the now-empty plinth that used to hold a statue of Roger Taney in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. 06-25-20 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

A statue of George Washington has stood watch over an intersection near an entrance to Druid Hill Park for more than a century, its stoic face gazing down a tree-lined road toward Druid Hill Avenue.

Now that face is splattered with what looks like blood. The words “Destroy Racists” cover one side of the sculpture, a profanity toward police another.

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Amid the wave of protests against the nation’s legacy of racism, it wasn’t unexpected for vandals to target statues of iconic Confederate figures such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, men remembered chiefly for supporting a cause that aimed to preserve slavery.

Now some protesters are targeting figures more widely revered — Founding Fathers such as Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves even as they helped establish a nation conceived in liberty.

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While many who support the protests rue the vandalism of public memorials, some also say it’s time for America to revisit the way it honors its heroes.

“I’m not enthusiastic about people defacing anything, or having large groups tear statues down, but I understand the sense of anger sweeping the nation,” said Paul Finkelman, author of a book on slavery and the nation’s founders.

“If we’re going to have a statue for someone like Washington, including that obelisk we all know of in downtown Baltimore, we should put it in a broader context so we can learn from everything he did. Our heroes are never perfect. I want a conversation about all this.”

Finkelman, president of Gratz College in Philadelphia, is among historians who say if we’re going to continue displaying representations of men like Washington and Jefferson in public spaces, we should include features that reflect their darker qualities as well.

Martha S. Jones, a Johns Hopkins University professor who specializes in African American history, agrees.

“I take memorials to be a valorization,” said Jones, who unlike Finkelman is African American. “That absolutely requires us to take stock, collectively, of how we regard those figures. How did we regard them in their lifetimes, in the past, and how do we regard them today?”

The Washington statue isn’t the first monument in Baltimore to come under physical attack or face scrutiny in recent years.

In 2017, the city drew national attention for then-mayor Catherine Pugh’s position in the monuments debate. Pugh had three statues to the Confederacy removed in the dead of night in August, after a publicly appointed commission had long debated the matter.

Pugh also oversaw the removal of a statue in Mount Vernon of Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court chief justice who delivered the majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott case, ruling that Blacks could not be citizens and Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories.

That same month, a local activist used a sledgehammer to destroy a plaque on a monument to Christopher Columbus in Northeast Baltimore’s Herring Run Park, and vandals used red paint to deface a monument to Francis Scott Key in Bolton Hill six weeks later.

Debate over Columbus swirled again last week after members of Baltimore BLOC, an activist group, announced via Twitter that members might remove the Herring Run Park statue and two others to the Italian explorer in the city if Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young didn’t do so within days.

The heroic status Columbus long enjoyed for having discovered America has come under intense fire in recent decades as information about his mistreatment of native people has come to light.

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Key, the Maryland native who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was a slaveholder.

If monuments are meant to be permanent tributes to individuals and what they stand for, experts say it’s a process laden with flaws.

Capturing humans in marble or bronze requires choosing and representing a few of their attributes to the exclusion of others, said Kirk Savage, a professor of art history and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh and an authority on public monuments and their role in shaping cultural memory.

The viewpoints of sculptors, designers and the people who pay them are subjective.

The protesters now clamoring to see the 98-year-old Emancipation Memorial of Abraham Lincoln in Washington taken down, or the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York removed, probably object less to those figures themselves than to the way the sculptors have portrayed them, Savage said.

Lincoln appears with a partially undressed African American at his feet, as if emancipation were a gift from whites. Roosevelt is shown with two figures in tow, a Native American and an African, as if he has conquered them.

“They’re the epitome of the idea of white supremacy,” Savage said.

In a statue like the one in Druid Hill Park — originally commissioned in 1857 by Noah Walker and Co., a Baltimore dry goods firm, for display on a store wall — we get the unambiguously resolute Washington who led the Continental Army against the British and steadied the republic as president. We don’t see the man who owned and profited from the labor of slaves for much of his adult life. (The Walker company donated the statue to the park in 1892.)

A statue of George Washington near the entrance of Druid Hill Park was defaced as the nationwide protests over the police custody death of George Floyd continue.
A statue of George Washington near the entrance of Druid Hill Park was defaced as the nationwide protests over the police custody death of George Floyd continue. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The selectivity comes with a cost. Savage, who is white, said he spent his early career focusing on the aesthetics of public monuments, only to learn years later that it’s crucial to understand how they affect the public.

In the 1990s, as he worked on a project in Richmond, Virginia, he decided to interview African American residents about how they felt walking along Monument Avenue, a grassy boulevard marked by statues of Confederate leaders.

The answers, he said, transformed his understanding of monuments as surely as the events of the past few weeks have challenged the general public.

“For Black residents, it was a place where they felt actively unsafe,” he said. “The idea was to get across Monument Avenue as quickly as possible. We’re not talking about metaphorical fear. We’re talking about literal fear.”

That, he said, made Richmond’s “monumental landscape” a physical expression of the same white supremacist thinking that has led in a more or less straight line to police brutality against African Americans we see today.

“We hear a lot of people, many of them white, who are alarmed at the violence being directed at these monuments, but they may not realize that slaveholder monuments are, and have been for a long time, expressions of psychic violence, because they glorifying people who are implicated in this system of slavery that was completely violent and brutal,” he said.

“From that point of view, many are going to look at those and say, ‘This is violence against us, and we need it down.‘”

It isn’t hard to find proponents of that perspective.

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Jones said the removal of outmoded statues is nothing new, at least not in other parts of the world. In Eastern Europe, for example, many monuments to Soviet leaders came down after the collapse of that empire.

Thanks to actions like the ones Pugh took three years ago, Jones said, in Baltimore and in Maryland generally “we have a very strong precedent for the taking down of figures that goes well beyond people associated with the Confederacy.”

Taney, after all, was judged worthy of removal even though he remained loyal to the Union throughout his life.

That, Jones said, “opened the door” for a reassessment of figures with mixed records such as Washington and Jefferson.

She points out that Washington — who is known to have freed his family’s slaves in his will — also led lengthy efforts to recapture one slave, Ona Judge, who escaped from the President’s House in Philadelphia in 1793.

“The story reflects that Washington was not a passive slaveholder, if there ever was such a thing,” she said. “He understood his property interests in owning someone like Ona Judge, and he was willing to exercise his rights.

“Does that rise to the level of a Roger Taney? I don’t know, but I do think it’s a good question.”

David Fakunle and Ida Jones are Baltimoreans who believe it does, though they differ in how to approach the problem.

David Fakunle of the National Great American Blacks in Wax Museum, acting chair of the commission, leads a regular monthly meeting of the group before the public rollout.
David Fakunle of the National Great American Blacks in Wax Museum, acting chair of the commission, leads a regular monthly meeting of the group before the public rollout. (Jonathan Pitts/Baltimore Sun)

Fakunle is chairman of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a state-appointed board working to commemorate the sites of all 44 lynchings known to have taken place in Maryland and to develop programs to help community members deal with the memories.

Our way of commemorating cultural heroes should change as we learn more about them, Fakunle said, and in his view, no one can emerge from the level of scrutiny available to modern researchers looking like a saint — not even African American heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., now known to historians as a womanizer as well as a reformer.

Washington, he said, was worse.

“For generations, he was lauded as a war hero, a president, and one of the founders of our democracy, and that should definitely be remembered,” he said, “but that’s just one side of the story. He also owned enslaved Africans. When humanity is so disregarded, it leads, in the long run, to things like the murders of George Floyd [and others]. … People are now looking back at history, taking a second look at the people we’ve been conditioned to idolize.”

Fakunle believes we also should add context even to the most prodigious memorials to figures like Washington — including the Washington monuments in D.C. and Baltimore — and eventually should consider renaming or removing them should public sentiment move in that direction.

He can foresee a time when support might grow for renaming the nation’s capital, perhaps for Benjamin Banneker, the African American mathematician and astronomer many historians have said helped plot the city’s layout.

“Given time, I think everything is on the table,” Fakunle said.

Ida Jones, the head archivist at Morgan State University, understands the emotion behind the recent uprisings, but favors a more measured expression of anger than the kind she said many of her friends support.

Defacing or destroying statues may attract a lot of attention, Jones said, but it’s “ugly” and only distracts from the deeper issues begging discussion.

She recently got pictures from a friend in Richmond who visited Monument Avenue, where images of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were projected one night onto the pedestal of a monument to Robert E. Lee as part of an educational light show.

Residents have turned the space into a public forum for history in context, and she’d like to see more of the same.

Dr. Martha S. Jones, a Johns Hopkins University professor who specializes in African-American history, poses for a portrait by the Washington Monument and the now-empty plinth that used to hold a statue of Roger Taney in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. 06-25-20
Dr. Martha S. Jones, a Johns Hopkins University professor who specializes in African-American history, poses for a portrait by the Washington Monument and the now-empty plinth that used to hold a statue of Roger Taney in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. 06-25-20 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Martha Jones already is enjoying something similar in Baltimore. She lives in Mount Vernon near the “Taney plinth,” the empty pedestal where the statue of the former justice once stood.

Residents have turned it into a stage for “pop-up installations that express their sense of who or what should sit there,” Jones said. It’s become a site for performance artists, peace signs and tributes to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It’s a reminder that public monuments and memorials do play a role in our collective civic life, and there’s something exciting about us, as a city, baptizing and re-baptizing that place …

“Some of us remember there was a bad guy here once. Some don’t,” Jones said. “But the life of the city goes on.”

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