Two years is not so long. At the two-year mark of the Civil War, Stonewall Jackson was alive, Gettysburg was still months away and Andersonville Prison Camp wasn’t even open yet. So if anyone is all that worried about the fate of the four Confederate monuments brought down in the middle of the night under orders of then-Mayor Catherine Pugh in August 2017, here’s all you really need to know: They sit out of view in a city-owned lot — as unmoving, unacceptable and unwelcome as ever. Happy two-year anniversary.
For all the attention these lumps of bronze have received, the statues are not missed. While the pedestals they left behind remain a peculiarity in certain corners of the city, Baltimore is no poorer for the absence of these Confederate tributes. It’s pretty safe to say that the community still has the same level of awareness of the Civil War that it did 24 months ago — including the rich history of how pro-Confederate symbols have been used by white supremacists since Reconstruction to assert dominion over African Americans. Indeed, one wonders how current issues involving race relations would be aggravated by a continued presence of Lost Cause glorification. Even the carved stone bases they left behind have been vandalized since their removal.
As we asserted two years ago, the statues are certainly worthy of being put back on display but only in proper context. Just as an overseer’s whip has a place in museums where it can be explained as the symbol of terror and servitude that it was, the monuments deserve full explanation, not blind adulation. How is there a Lee-Jackson monument in Baltimore? Because they were seen as heroic figures seven decades ago when private donations paid for the tribute. They are not forgotten, but their legacy is viewed far more skeptically today. That’s a good thing. Take note: Defending slavery has consequences — at least once the public is sufficiently attuned to just how awful that choice is.
What’s surprising is that, as The Sun’s Colin Campbell recently detailed, there are still some folks who are in a rush to get the Confederate tributes back in circulation. We would expect as much from those who identify as sons of the South and still see nothing wrong with how they were displayed in the first place, but it’s a little surprising to read that the Maryland Historical Trust might feel they are under a deadline to make the monuments “accessible to the public in an appropriate setting.” Here’s a modest suggestion: Don’t sweat it. Take as much time as you need. This isn’t Pickett’s Charge. Better to have them melted down, as Morgan State’s Lawrence Brown has advocated, if appropriate museum settings aren’t found. But really, they might be the least important problem facing Baltimore right now.
Want a list of those more critical items? Improving schools and job training, reducing violent crime, restoring faith in the police department and in city government generally, providing addiction treatment and preventing overdoses, creating well-paying jobs and the means to commute to those employment centers, attracting new residents, providing affordable housing, cleaning up the streets, ridding the community of vacant homes, wiping out hunger and ensuring access to medical care. All of these are far more pressing issues than what to do with an extra Roger B. Taney sculpture or any of the others. Yet the return of those statues to the community would likely hamper any or all of those efforts because it would mean aggravating racial divisions that no less a public figure than the current president of the United States has sought to exploit.
Some have suggested that Baltimore ought to have monuments to remind people of more neglected chapters of history such as the efforts of black Union soldiers or even the Pratt Street Riot. Sounds good — if there’s a benefactor with the interest and financial wherewithal to pull it off. Still, if it were up to us, our favored monuments would be to raise the flag of higher graduation rates, salute a sharp decline in homicides and greet an army of new jobs. Symbols have their purpose, but this generation, the young people living in Baltimore right here and right now, should be remembered as our top priority. Let the abandoned monuments silently witness their elevation.