A year and a half after a city panel recommended that four Confederate-linked monuments be removed or altered, Mayor Catherine Pugh decided Tuesday to take them all down — and then watched as crews worked into early Wednesday to tear them from their pedestals.
“We moved quickly and quietly,” Pugh said. “There was enough grandstanding, enough speeches being made. Get it done.”
Pugh said crews removed the monuments unannounced and under cover of darkness between 11:30 p.m. Tuesday and 5:30 a.m. Wednesday in the hope of avoiding the potential for a violent conflict similar to the one Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.
A rally by Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists in that college town, ostensibly to protest plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, turned deadly: A counter-protester was killed when a Neo-Nazi sympathizer allegedly drove his car into a crowd, and two police officers monitoring the scene died when their helicopter crashed.
Pugh said she contacted contractors and on Tuesday hired Whiting-Turner, which used heavy machinery to do the job.
A group of protesters had pledged to tear down a monument to Lee and fellow Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at Wyman Park Dell near the Johns Hopkins University themselves on Wednesday if the city did not.
“They needed to come down,” Pugh said. “My concern is for the safety and security of our people.”
Pugh declined to say how much it cost to remove the statues, or where they had been taken. She said the city would provide cost details soon, but planned to keep the location of the statues secret to avoid conflict.
The monuments were loaded onto flatbed trucks and hauled away before sunrise Wednesday, bringing an abrupt end to more than two years of indecision across two mayoral administrations.
The four monuments — the Lee-Jackson Monument, a monument to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney at Mount Vernon Place, the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Mount Royal Avenue and the Confederate Women's Monument on West University Parkway — came under renewed scrutiny in 2015 after the white supremacist Dylann Roof shot nine African-Americans to death in a church in Charleston, S.C.
Amid a national discussion about the Confederate flag and other symbols of that era, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake commissioned a task force of historians, activists and others to study what the city should do with its monuments. The panel recommended removing the Taney and Lee-Jackson statues and adding information to the others.
But Rawlings-Blake left the decision to her successor.
Pugh took office in December. But she focused first on a school budget shortfall, record violence and other issues.
The question of what to do with the statues was forced to the fore by the strife in Charlottesville.
The Baltimore City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for the removal of the statues. And in Annapolis, the Maryland State House Trust voted Wednesday to remove a statue of Taney, who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery, from the lawn of the State House.
It was unclear Wednesday how soon that Taney statue would be removed.
Now that the city’s monuments are down, Pugh said, officials are deciding what to do with them. She said replacing them with historical markers explaining the significance of the monuments — and the reasons for their removal — would be appropriate.
“What should go in their place is a plaque of sorts that tells what was there and why it was removed,” Pugh said. “You can remove a statue, but it is a part of the history of this nation. I don’t know why they were put there — I wasn’t here at the time — but I do know they’re offensive to many people in this nation.”
Larry S. Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor who served on Rawlings-Blake’s commission, declared Wednesday a “glorious day.”
“It was the first day that any Baltimorean alive has woke up in a city without monuments to the Confederacy,” he said.
The Lee-Jackson statue was erected in 1948 after a $100,000 donation from Baltimorean J. Henry Ferguson. Ferguson’s father was a friend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
“They were great generals and great Christian soldiers,” Ferguson said at the time.
Three thousand people, including then-Gov. William Preston Lane Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., attended the dedication.
“Today, with our nation beset by subversive groups and propaganda which seeks to destroy our national unity, we can look for inspiration to the lives of Lee and Jackson to remind us to be resolute and determined in preserving our sacred institutions,” D’Alesandro said at the time.
Carolyn Billups, former president of the Maryland chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, called the city’s action sneaky.
“Rats run at night,” she said. “It’s very saddening, but at least the monuments were not torn down by angry mobs.”
City Councilman Brandon Scott, the lead sponsor of the council’s resolution to tear down the monuments, didn’t see it that way.
“The mayor showed tremendous leadership doing it the way she did,” he said.
Scott said he’d like to see the monuments melted down and turned into statues of prominent Baltimoreans, such as Clarence “Du” Burns, the city’s first black mayor.
Pugh has previously suggested moving them to Confederate cemeteries.
The Washington Confederate Cemetery in Hagerstown, which Pugh named as one possibility, is maintained by the Rose Hill Cemetery, and owned by the state.
Rose Hill executive director Colleen Rafferty said she has not been contacted about acquiring the statues and is "not interested" in having them. She said she is concerned about protests and disruptions following the monuments where they go.
"This is not the place for it," Rafferty said. "We need to honor those who are here."
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs owns three cemeteries in Maryland in which Confederate soldiers are interred. A spokeswoman said the department had “not received any requests to accept local or state Confederate monuments.”
As news of the removal spread Wednesday, many people visited the spots on which the Confederate monuments had stood. Some posed for pictures, smiling, with the vacant pedestals.
The city's action sparked heated conversations between strangers on street corners about race relations in America, leading to handshakes, hugs and high-fives.
Sheila Boone, 56, stopped at each of the four monuments on her way to work Wednesday morning. She smiled at each of the empty bases and snapped photos for Facebook.
For years, Boone said, the monuments had reminded her of "hate, hate and more hate." Now, it was as if someone cared how she felt.
She plans to make a plaque for each of her grandchildren displaying photos she took of the empty monument bases. Boone said that will teach them they must fight for what they believe in.
Debra Mathews, 43, of Lower Charles Village routed her morning run to catch a glimpse of each of the monument sites. She said the city was smart to take down the statues overnight to prevent any interference or large-scale disturbances.
“It was a great thing to wake up to,” she said.
Baltimore Sun journalists Talia Richman, Sean Welsh, Tim Prudente and Paul McCardell contributed to this article.