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A thoughtful approach to diversity and inclusion in Baltimore | COMMENTARY

Surrounded by iron fencing, a statue of Capt. John O'Donnell (1749-1805) stands in the middle of O'Donnell Square, nestled in the center of the commercial district of Canton. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Surrounded by iron fencing, a statue of Capt. John O'Donnell (1749-1805) stands in the middle of O'Donnell Square, nestled in the center of the commercial district of Canton. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

For months now, civic leaders in Canton have been debating the future of the statue of Capt. John O’Donnell, the waterfront community’s founder and the man for whom its central square and park is named. The Irish-born merchant who sailed the globe, fought in the Battle of North Point and eventually owned considerable east-side property also enslaved people. Should the community pay tribute to this wealthy and influential figure who may have brought back silk, porcelain and tea as well as the name, “Canton,” from China but also had, according to a 1790 census, at least three dozen enslaved people on his plantation? That conversation has continued in recent days with an online petition calling for the removal of the statue as a demonstration that Baltimore rejects racism “past and present.”

As of Monday morning, more than 525 people had signed the Change.org petition, some leaving messages like “this is unacceptable and long overdue” and that “racism will never win.” There have been no threats of violence, no acts of arson. Even elected officials sympathetic to the cause have demonstrated a measure of restraint. Councilman Zeke Cohen, who signed the petition, told The Sun’s Yvonne Wenger that he wants to see the community become more united and awaits additional input. "Fair or unfair, Canton is perceived by much of Baltimore, and many Black neighbors that live here, as being insular and racist,” he said. “We have an opportunity to take a big step toward changing that perception.”

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Meanwhile, the new chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee, has already staked out a top issue he wants the city’s leading business group to pursue — racial equity and inclusion. Calvin G. Butler Jr., a senior executive vice president at Exelon and CEO of the company’s utilities including BGE, told GBC members less than two weeks ago that they had an obligation to strive to vanquish racism. “Favoring one group over any other causes societal challenges that limit progress for individuals, communities and cities,” he told those attending GBC’s annual meeting, albeit virtually, on Oct. 14. City institutions from the Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore Museum of Art have been embarked on a similar campaign, the former most famously, of course, but hardly uniquely. And, by the way, Mr. Butler is Black, which may be seen as another measure of change in this city.

Whatever historians write about the upheavals of 2020 from the COVID-19 pandemic to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the hands of police last May, let the record reflect that it has not been simply a hellish combination of the 1918 flu outbreak with 1968 racial unrest. From the white suburbanites posting Black Lives Matter signs in their front yards to the professional athletes proudly sporting a BLM message across their helmets or jerseys, social change is happening quickly and with broad support. About two-thirds of Americans support the Black Lives Matter message, more than half of them “strongly,” according to a Pew Research Center poll (and even as a majority acknowledge that some people have taken advantage of BLM protests to engage in criminal behavior).

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Five years ago, frustration over the death of Freddie Gray touched off violence, looting, months of civil unrest and a reevaluation of city police conduct. Upset over statues honoring Confederate leaders required they be hastily removed at night. Now, contrast that to the almost-serene O’Donnell statue debate. How should his enslavement practices be seen 215 years after his death? Should the statue have added context, or is his choice wholly disqualifying? And what does it mean for other wealthy early Baltimoreans honored by street names or similar civic recognitions? In retrospect, the Confederate generals were an easy call. What about George Washington and that beloved monument named after him standing in Mount Vernon Place?

A certain temporary Oval Office occupant likes to cast this year’s police protests and even debates over statues as scary failures of “Democrat-run cities.” Donald Trump even mentioned Baltimore this past weekend at a campaign stop as part of his anti-protester pitch decrying the chaos of President Barack Obama’s and then-Vice President Joe Biden’s time in office. And while we can’t endorse criminal behavior now or then, such sweeping judgment misses the broader, and we believe more important, point that fundamental and widely-supported social change is happening. The future of a 40-year-old statue in Canton is of passing interest, but the renewed focus on confronting and eliminating systemic racism? That is, as we like to say in the news business, one of the big stories of 2020 and perhaps the most heartening one.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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