Slightly more than 15 months ago, a group of protesters tore down the statue of Christopher Columbus in downtown Baltimore, tossing it into the Inner Harbor. What had drawn their ire was the notion that the 15th century explorer, a symbol of European colonialism who played a high-profile role in the enslavement and killing of native people, could continue to be honored in a city still struggling with the long-term effects of systemic racism. To many Italian Americans, however, Columbus remains a source of great ethnic pride and identity, and even now a group of Marylanders is working hard to create an exact replica of the statue to eventually be displayed at some as-yet-unrevealed location.
Yet the Columbus statue is far from the only historical figure being reevaluated. Baltimore has also grappled in recent years with its Confederate monuments, which have since been removed from the city. And now, the highest ranking member of Maryland’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives is calling for the bust of Maryland’s former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney to be removed from National Statuary Hall.
Taney was the author of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision that denied citizenship to African Americans. As House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer recently observed in a letter to his Senate counterpart calling on that chamber to follow the House lead and pass legislation removing the Taney bust and pro-Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol: “These sacred spaces should be reserved for those we revere: honorable Americans of whose deeds and legacies we can all be proud.”
And so no matter whether the second Monday in October represents Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day in your particular household, there’s something important happening here. Not a rejection of history. That’s the easy and misleading charge often made by political conservatives seeking to stoke white fear. Commemorative statues are traditionally reserved for those individuals we wish to celebrate in public spaces, not simply acknowledge. Rather, what’s going on is clearly a broader, deeper and more accurate examination of historical figures. What is the consequence of Christopher Columbus to the people who were already living in the Americas? Clearly, terrible. Similarly, what message does it send Black Americans when we build and preserve monuments to Robert E. Lee and other leading Confederate figures who fought to keep slavery? Decades ago, we did not consider. Today, we do. This is progress.
We do not advocate vandalism or theft. The protesters in Baltimore and elsewhere have sometimes gone too far. But we can’t ignore the merits of their viewpoint — and the passion behind their cause. Words matter and symbolic statues even more. Communities are slowly coming to grips with this. If Baltimore can remove its tributes to the Confederacy, other places can, too. Last month, Richmond, Virginia removed its large memorial to General Lee. The controversial “Talbot Boys” monument to Confederate soldiers in Easton is now expected to be removed from the Talbot County Courthouse as well.
Even Baltimore’s ardent anti-Columbus protesters of July 4, 2020, must recognize that being discomforted by these reassessments of historical figures does not necessarily make one a terrible person. For many Americans, history lessons taught decades ago with their distinctive viewpoints are locked in our brains as if frozen in amber. “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Many do not consider those adversely impacted by colonialism because they have never been asked to do so. As a country, we are capable of learning, but the process can be slow and uneven. Witness how many are struggle today with lifesaving vaccines in the middle of a pandemic. Think American history teachers have a little egg on their faces? High school biology instructors must feel the full omelet.
History is always being written with a measure of bias to be addressed at a later date. As Mark Twain once observed, “The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” The only difference in the 21st century is that a reassessment can happen a bit faster when everyone has access to the instant soapbox of social media as opposed to the slow grind of writing books or giving speeches in the 19th and early 20th.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.