One year since Baltimore's Confederate monuments were removed in the night, the issues they raised remain

Mark Martindale has a favorite path through Wyman Park Dell, up and down sloping walkways, under the canopy of huge old trees and into the clearing where, until a year ago, stood a statue of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

“From an artistic standpoint, I miss it,” said Martindale, 54, who lives in Charles Village. “The double equestrians, the horses, they were magnificent.

“But I don’t miss the racism it represented.”

Overnight one year ago, as most of Baltimore slept, crews working for the city took down three memorials to the Confederacy and a statue of Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery.

The unannounced, dark-of-night strike was as dramatic as it was long in coming.

For years, Baltimore, a majority African-American city in a state where nearly three times as many fought for the Union as for the Confederacy, had studied and debated what to do with statues that many saw as symbols of white supremacy.

But after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., activists and then officials sprang into action.

Activists targeted Baltimore’s Confederate memorials, throwing red paint on one and threatening to take them down themselves.

Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered their removal, a process that began after 11:30 p.m. Aug. 15 and continued through the morning. Later that week state officials ordered a statue of Taney removed from the front lawn of the State House in Annapolis, also overnight.

Pugh received much praise at the time for her decisive action, a moment in the national spotlight that for a change didn’t involve negative news about crime, police brutality or police corruption.

Looking back this week, Pugh said Baltimore became a model for how other cities could handle their own controversial monuments. But she was otherwise fairly subdued on the subject. She said she didn’t have any particular feelings watching the monuments come down, and was just focused on preventing the kind of violence that had broken out elsewhere.

“It probably kept us from a whole lot of protesters, people walking through cities as they did, creating unnecessary damage to cities,” she said. “We didn’t have that in Baltimore.”

Pugh won’t say where the statues are now — only that they are in storage in “a pretty safe place.” She said conversations about what to do with them, and with museums and Confederate cemeteries that might take them, are continuing.

And she said while other cities spent millions of dollars to remove their monuments, Baltimore paid less than $20,000.

“People who participated in it,” Pugh said, “felt that it was an honor to be a part of it.”

But while the monuments are away from public view — only their pedestals remain in the sites in Wyman Park, Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon and Tuscany-Canterbury — issues they raised remain.

Historians say the monuments were erected to promote the Lost Cause, the romanticized revision of the Civil War that portrays the Confederacy as fighting honorably to preserve its way of life while downplaying the role of slavery, or even depicting it as a benign institution.

They point to a timeline compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center that shows spikes in the building of Confederate monuments that coincide with times when whites were trying to maintain supremacy: In the 1910s and 1920s, when Jim Crow laws were enacted, and in the 1950s and 1960s, during the civil rights movement.

University of Maryland law professor Larry Gibson, who served on a commission appointed by former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to study Baltimore’s Confederate monuments, said erecting the memorials was a political act, not a historical homage.

“They were political statements meant to be part of redefining what the Civil War was about,” he said. “They were part of the Lost Cause movement, to glorify the South, explain why they lost, and how the Civil War was about states’ rights.”

By one measure, the effort worked.

“There are still people to this day who will say the Civil War was not about abolishing slavery,” Gibson said.

Terry Klima, commander of the Maryland division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, is one of them.

“Certainly, slavery was an issue in the background and it divided people,” he said. “But it wasn’t the one thing that led to war.

“The war was fought over secession.”

Klima acknowledges that several states specifically cited the preservation of slavery as their reason for seceding. Mississippi, in particular, noted that “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”

But he rejects what he calls “the narrative that’s been spun” that Confederate monuments were erected to promote white supremacy.

“There’s no documentation of that,” he said. “They recognize the service of these individuals. There wasn’t anything nefarious about it.”

Klima said the Maryland Historical Trust, a state agency, should restore the statues to public view.

The trust said in a letter last year that the city did not have legal authority to remove the memorial.

In the letter, obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Maryland Public Information Request, the trust said a 1984 contract with the city gives the trust the final say on any changes to the monuments, and the right to order the statues restored. It also said it had no plans to exercise its authority.

Pugh has said she ordered the statues removed because they posed a threat to public safety. Allowed to remain on view, she has said, they could draw demonstrations and attempts to remove them.

A spokesman for the trust, a division of the state Department of Planning, said the agency is working with the city’s Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation to find new locations for the monuments.

The groups will work “to make the monuments accessible to the public in an appropriate setting and context,” spokesman David Buck said.

Cities and states elsewhere are also wrestling with what to do with their own Confederate monuments.

Demands for their removal intensified after the white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine African-American congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Roof has been convicted and sentenced to death.

Since then, 113 Confederate memorials in public spaces have been removed, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. More than 1,700 remain.

The number, which includes monuments, names of cities, counties, public schools and military bases, and paid holidays for state employees, is actually more than the group counted in 2016. Officials say that might reflect increased reporting of memorials to the center — not an actual increase in memorials.

Lecia Brooks, the group’s outreach director, said the Charleston shooting and the Charlottesville rally sparked conversations about “what should and shouldn’t be commemorated,” and boosted civic engagement in the issue.

“I think for the first time, some members of communities are playing a greater role in their communities’ governance,” she said.

The fact that so many counterprotesters showed up at anniversary rallies in Charlottesville and Washington last weekend, greatly outnumbering the few white supremacists, demonstrates that people want to strongly rebuke their racist message, Brooks said.

Still, she said, there has been a backlash. Several states have passed “preservation” laws that ban removing certain monuments, or at least make it more difficult.

For decades, Baltimore’s statues attracted little attention. The Taney statue in Mount Vernon just north of the Washington Monument dated to 1887, according to the Rawlings-Blake commission; the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Bolton Hill, to 1902; the Confederate women’s monument at East University Parkway and North Charles Street to 1915 and 1916; and the Lee and Jackson statue in the Wyman Park Dell to 1948.

Eugene Taylor Sutton, the Episcopal bishop of Maryland, says he barely noticed the Confederate women’s monument across Charles Street from his church’s cathedral.

Sutton, the first African-American to lead the Diocese of Maryland, eventually learned about it and the other three memorials — including how Episcopal clergy had spoken at the dedication of three of them.

He was offended that the Confederate women’s statue echoed Michelangelo’s Pieta, which depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dying Jesus, implying that the soldier would rise again.

“As a person of faith, as a Christian, the reference was clear and distasteful,” Sutton said. “Their cause was not noble, that cause died, and it needed to die and not be resurrected.”

Sutton wants the city to gather multiple voices, young and old, black and white, to discuss and decide what should replace the statues. It would be a way of fixing one problem with the Confederate monuments: They memorialized only one side of the conflict, ignoring the role of and impact on others, particularly African-Americans.

“We now have almost literally a clean slate,” Sutton said. “This generation has been accorded an opportunity to write on that slate … something that will respect the dignity of all human beings.

“All of us make better decisions than a few of us,” he said.

Some of the empty pedestals still bear titles and inscriptions. But now activists have left their mark as well — for a while, an artist’s papier mache statue of a pregnant woman, titled “Madre Luz,” stood atop the Lee-Jackson pedestal.

Now, there are posters affixed to the base that urged people to “block the Alt-Right” on the anniversary of the Charlottesville rally.

“To me, it feels like, by taking the statues down, the spaces were opened up,” said University of Baltimore historian Elizabeth Nix, who also served on Rawlings-Blake’s commission. “They were opened up to people with other messages, different from the white supremacist message.”

The commission in 2016 recommended removing the Taney and Lee-Jackson statues and adding “a very serious recontextualization” on the other two.

Signs were added to all four memorials to note that they were part of a “propaganda campaign” by Confederate supporters to “falsify history and support segregation and racial intimidation.”

But Rawlings-Blake said the expense of removing them precluded immediate action. She left that decision to her successor.

Pugh, who took office at the end of 2016, said she wanted them gone but faced more pressing issues, such as police and schools.

Then the Charlottesville rally propelled the issue to the front burner.

The sight of white supremacists openly displaying their bigotry disgusted many. Then the gathering turned violent, and counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed. Two Virginia state troopers died when their helicopter crashed.

Adding to anger was President Donald Trump’s initial statement, and variants that he would repeat in the coming days, condemning violence on “many sides.”

After Baltimore removed its memorials, he tweeted that it was “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”

Pugh said this week that removing the monuments doesn’t prevent anyone from learning about history. There are plenty of books and other materials available, she said.

Nix said part of learning about history is exploring the nuances and complexities behind the events and figures that have been memorialized.

“In the teaching of history,” she said, “I think we’re moving away from making anyone have these heroic proportions.”

She said it’s regrettable that other memorials in town were vandalized shortly after the Confederate statues were taken down. A video posted on YouTube showed a man striking the Christopher Columbus obelisk near Herring Run Park as a narrator called the explorer a “genocidal terrorist.” Someone spray-painted “Racist Anthem” on the monument to Francis Scott Key in Bolton Hill.

“I don’t think that’s the way to express dissatisfaction with monuments,” she said. “There are complicated stories behind all of them.”

Gibson said he doesn’t care where Baltimore’s Confederate monuments end up, as long as they’re not given “places of honor,” as they were in the past. He praised Pugh for taking “long overdue” action to remove them.

And while their absence doesn’t fix everything that needs fixing in Baltimore, he said, it’s a start.

“I didn’t expect the statues coming down would change everything,” Gibson said. “But at least we don’t have these insults to a significant portion of the population.

“You change what you can. You point out what is wrong.”

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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