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Who was Laurel's Charles Stanley? [History Matters]

Laurel Leader

When it was announced in 2014 that the Stanley Memorial Library would be torn down and replaced, Prince George's County also announced that its policy of naming library branches for their locations, not for people living or dead, would not permit the Stanley name to continue to appear on the new building. The Stanley family deeded the land to the county in 1963 specifically for a library to be built and to be named the Stanley Memorial Library.

With the announcement, a few residents did some research into the library's namesake, only to discover that Stanley, a Laurel mayor, state comptroller and founder of Citizen's National Bank, had also been a Confederate soldier during the Civil War. In social media and letters to the Laurel Leader, a controversy ignited as to the appropriateness of a Confederate soldier's name on a building in the heart of the Grove, Laurel's historical black community.

The Prince George's County Library Trustees Board has since decided to follow the requirement of the deed agreement and keep the Stanley name on the new library building. There will also be a memorial plaque for Charles Stanley in the lobby. While this decision will please some, others will consider it a travesty.

Charles Stanley's great-grandson, Bill Stanley, and great-granddaughter, Maggie Stanley, had their own reactions to the 2014 controversy over the library's name.

"It really irked me and got me off social media," said Bill Stanley, a resident of Columbia. He was particularly offended by the "racist family" comments aimed at him and his immediate family.

Maggie Stanley took a more conciliatory view. She was "disappointed" at the initial ruling by the library board to remove Charles Stanley's name, but acknowledged it was a "community prerogative" to do so. She echoed her brother, though, by saying, "You can't deny history."

Confederate 'orphan'

The Stanley family traces its roots in the U.S. to before the Revolutionary War. John Wright Stanly, Charles' great-grandfather who spelled his last name without the "e," spent the years before the Revolutionary War as a privateer and shipping merchant. Bill Stanley claims John Wright Stanly dropped the "e" from his name because he was wanted by the authorities for rum-running. Stanly did spend time in Philadelphia's debtors' prison after a dispute with his business partner. But once war broke out, Stanly's fleet was used to harass and confiscate goods from British merchant vessels. He was counted on to supply George Washington's troops at Valley Forge and many other locations. After the war, Stanly prospered in North Carolina with his shipping business.

After John Wright Stanly, the two generations of Stanleys (who replaced the "e") leading up to Charles Stanley's birth in 1842 included a congressman from North Carolina, a county clerk in Craven County, N.C. and a president of the North Carolina state senate. Charles Stanley's father, a clergyman in what was then known as the Protestant Episcopal Church, moved his family to Prince George's County when Charles was 9.

In his book, "First and Second Maryland Cavalry, C.S.A.," Robert Driver explains the dilemma faced by Marylanders in the Civil War: "The general assembly was dominated by representatives from slave-holding southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore." But Baltimore, he writes, "was a major commercial seaport with the financial characteristics of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston in the North. Its social and cultural ties, however, were with the slave-holding South; the Chesapeake Bay society, for example, was closely tied to Virginia. Western Maryland, on the other hand, was predominantly rural, agricultural, and non-slave-holding."

When he was 19, Stanley decided to become an "orphan," as Confederate soldiers who hailed from the border states of Maryland, Kentucky or Missouri were known. He certainly wasn't alone. There were two cavalry units, along with infantry and artillery units in the Confederate Army comprised solely of Marylanders.

Driver's book does a remarkable job piecing together Stanley's career from fragments of information. Stanley's enlistment papers described him as 5 feet 10 inches with light complexion, light hair and gray eyes. A private in Company B, First Maryland Cavalry, Stanley's war service was eventful. In February 1863, he was wounded and captured near Romney, W. Va. Driver said he speculated that Stanley may have been with an ambulance detail, since there were no skirmishes in Romney on that date. Ambulance details "were easy pickings" for enemy soldiers due to the nature of their work, Driver said.

Stanley wound up at the Union Army's Camp Chase as a POW, and, two months later, was part of a prisoner exchange with the Confederates.

In July 1863, he was again wounded and captured, this time near Monterey Springs, Pa. He was sent to Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where he was once again part of a prisoner exchange the next month. For the remainder of the war, he spent time throughout Virginia, in Richmond, Winchester, Manchester and High Bridge, and spent a few months convalescing in hospitals in Richmond and Staunton. He was briefly captured again by Union forces, but he escaped. Stanley was present in Appomattox when General Lee surrendered.

After the war, Stanley returned to Prince George's County. He immediately benefited from contacts he made during his service. It appears he knew Maj. Thomas Bowie, also from Prince George's County, who served on Confederate Gen. Fitz Hugh Lee's staff. According to the Genealogical and Memorial Encyclopedia of the State of Maryland, found at the Maryland Historical Society, "Stanley taught school and studied law, having as law preceptor, General Thomas Bowie." His teacher, father of Thomas Bowie, was a lawyer and former congressman from Prince George's County. Stanley was admitted to the bar in 1869, the same year Thomas Bowie Sr. died.

In 1871, Stanley married Ella Lee Hodges, and they moved to Laurel. She died in 1881; the couple was childless. In 1884 Stanley married Margaret Snowden, a descendant of the Snowden family that originally settled Laurel. They had nine children, all born in Laurel.

Stanley's obituary from the Leader said "Upon taking up residence in Laurel, Mr. Stanley became active in its affairs and never lost interest in the town's welfare."

His law career took off spectacularly and he opened offices in Laurel and Baltimore. Besides the law, he also provided real estate services to the growing town.

His service to the surrounding community took many forms. He was the attorney for the Laurel Building Association; a director of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; chancellor of the Washington Diocese of the Protestant Episcopal Church; vestryman of St. Philip's Protestant Episcopal Church in Laurel and superintendent of its Sunday school; member and past master of the Laurel Wreath Lodge, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons; member of the Law and Order Society of Laurel; and a charter member of the Vansville Farmer's Club of Prince George's County. In 1890, he founded Citizen's National Bank on Main Street and was president of the bank until his death.

He had an abiding interest in education that also led to some important service. In 1882 he became the chairman of the executive committee of the board of trustees for Maryland Agricultural College, which later became the University of Maryland. In a "University of Maryland Timeline" posted on the university's website, it's interesting to note that the college had three ex-Confederate officers serve as president in the 20 years after the Civil War.

Stanley served on the School Commissioners of Prince George's County, and was elected as a vice-president of the Association of School Commissioners and County Superintendents of Maryland. He was also on the Maryland State Board of Education.

In 1907, during Stanley's tenure on the State Board of Education, the trustees of the Baltimore Normal School, which, according to the Baltimore Sun, was "conducted as a private institution for the education of colored women as teachers," offered to sell the property to the state. The condition was that the state maintain the school as it was. The board was "of the opinion that the State needs more and better trained colored teachers as instructors in schools for negroes."

In 1911, at which point Stanley had become president of the school board, the board had to decide a case concerning a child's race. The 8-year-old child had been the subject of a complaint by the parent of a white student at a Prince George's County public school, who questioned the 8-year-old's race, claiming the child was African American and therefore should not be allowed to attend the same school as white students. Stanley and the board "examined her countenance and appearance" and "immediately decided that she was as white as any other child," according to a story in the Baltimore Sun at the time. The board "ordered her to remain as a pupil" but "the other pupils refused to attend" school with her, the Sun reported. Ultimately, "as the school had been practically disorganized because of her attendance, it was decided by the board to temporarily suspend her," the Sun story said.

In addition to his duties at the state level, Stanley had a busy political career, beginning as a city commissioner in Laurel for two years, followed by serving in the Maryland House of Delegates for two years. In 1891, he was elected mayor of Laurel and served for two terms. He ran for Congress in the Democratic primary in 1912 but was defeated. His disappointment didn't last long, however, as Gov. Austin L. Crothers appointed him state comptroller to complete the term of William B. Clagett, who died in office.

Laurel landowner

Stanley started to buy land shortly after moving to Laurel. By the time of his death, Stanley had become one of the largest landowners in town. Some of the discussion centered on the library pertains to his land in the Grove and its use. In a paper titled, "The African-American Experience in Laurel," Sandra Johnson, the historian of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in the Grove, wrote: "Many community and church-related activities, picnics and baseball games were held in the old oak grove. The facility belonged to the Charles Stanley family. Charles and other members of his family allowed the sponsors of the various activities to use the property free of charge."

The "facility" she mentions is the area on the east side of Eighth Street, where the city's Emancipation Community Park and the Laurel library are located. Contrary to rumor, Stanley never owned land on the west side of Eighth Street, where the majority of homes in the Grove are located. He did, however, sell 25 acres to blacks in Rossville, a small African-American community between Laurel and Beltsville. The transactions are documented with the Maryland Historical Trust.

After a two-month illness, Stanley died in his sleep of kidney and heart trouble in his home in Laurel on Dec. 20, 1913.

His extensive land holdings that were left to his heirs included the downtown area bordered by Montgomery Street, Fifth Street, Gorman Avenue and Eighth Street.

His words

Unfortunately, Stanley didn't leave a journal to help gauge his attitude toward race relations. There are, however, some of his speeches and writings that can give clues.

Stanley was proud of his service for the Confederates. Long after the war, he participated in reunions and camps, and in for years. In 1903, he hosted a reunion for Company B soldiers in Laurel at the old Academy of Music. In his speech to his comrades, which was published in the News Leader at the time, Stanley said:

"We look at the old banner under which we fought, the stars and bars; we are not ashamed of it, nay, we are proud of it; it never trailed in the dust. It may represent a lost cause, but it represents a cause for which much of the best blood in the land was freely spilled and for which many a noble life was given. It represents to us a principle which you and I believed was right; believing so we acted openly, honestly, and above board. When overcome and our gallant great General said, "Surrender, spill no more blood uselessly," we had to do it and having done it, we stand under the stars and the stripes of the flag of the re-united North and South, and there are no men to the land truer to the stars and stripes than those who loved the stars and bars, and no set of men will do more to sustain the government."

After 1870, when African-Americans gained the right to vote in Maryland, racial divides instantly became a political issue. When he ran for Congress in 1912, Stanley made a case for himself by saying, "I have been nominated for the legislature twice from my county when no one else would face the issue because of the heavy negro vote." Three days later he was again quoted in the Sun, talking about the fifth district: "I venture to say that three-fourths of the white people in it are Democrats, and were it not for the big negro vote no Republican could ever have been elected from it."

Tradition of service

In the deed that transferred the property — for $10 — it was stipulated that the county would build "a Public Library Building to be known as 'The Stanley Memorial Library.'" According to Bill Stanley, who participated in the opening ceremonies with his father, the name was supposed to apply to the entire Stanley family, not just his great-grandfather. In its coverage of the donation, the News Leader declared, "The land is being given as a memorial to Charles H. Stanley and his four sons, according to William Stanley, Jr."

Stanley's sons did indeed continue his tradition of service. William Stanley Sr., served as the Assistant Attorney general in Franklin Roosevelt's administration during the Great Depression. Others served as trustees for Citizen's National Bank.

While much of Stanley's life seems contradictory, he proved himself a shrewd businessman and politician. His biography was included in the 1907 book, "Men of Mark in Maryland," where he wrote: "Industry, honesty, and close attention to whatever comes to hand as a business are important and one must never forget that it is the individuals who make up the American people."

Historical context is critical. History is replete with characters who may not measure up to contemporary society's acceptable mores, but who made significant and lasting contributions to community or country. There's no question Stanley — and the Stanley family — was a major, positive influence on Laurel's history. The only real question is: Do his years of service and many contributions to the Laurel community outweigh his participation as a proud 19-year-old private in the Confederate Army?

Contact Kevin Leonard at or 301-776-9260.

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