The big controversy at Robert E. Lee Park, historically, has been about whether and where dogs can run there off leash, not so much about its name. But the fact that the city-owned park leased to Baltimore County honors the most prominent figure in the Confederacy has long struck some as inappropriate. The Sun has printed occasional letters to the editor on the topic over the decades, and last week, after the killing of nine worshippers in a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., prompted renewed discussion about veneration of the Confederacy, Baltimore City Paper editor Evan Serpick started an on-line petition to change the name.
But it is noteworthy, given the region's history, that the prime mover in the effort to re-name the park has turned out to be Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. Baltimore County was, after all, the major initial destination for white flight from the city, and its leaders have not always seemed to put a high premium on sensitivity to issues like this. But, as County Administrative Officer Fred Homan put it in a letter to the city on Mr. Kamenetz's behalf, the region's demographics have shifted — Baltimore County is now about 36 percent minority — and the name no longer seems appropriate.
The city's leaders, who are the ones with the authority to re-name the park despite an agreement by which the county operates it, have responded enthusiastically to Mr. Kamenetz's suggestion, though it's not altogether clear that his proposal to rename it Lake Roland Park will carry the day. We support that effort, but it does beg the question of where we stop in erasing the evidence of Maryland's once strong Confederate sympathies. Someone painted the phrase "Black Lives Matter" on a Confederate memorial in Baltimore, and some are now renewing the debate over whether a statue of Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court chief justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision, should be removed from the grounds of the State House.
We oppose defacement under most circumstances, and monuments, taken in proper context, serve as an important reminder of the beliefs and attitudes of our forebears, and of the progress we have made. There is no better example of that than the Taney statue. Taney, a Calvert County native who died in 1864, was a Maryland state delegate, senator and attorney general before serving in Andrew Jackson's administration and eventually on the Supreme Court. Though his relationship to slavery was somewhat complicated — he freed his own slaves — he is defined historically by the Dred Scott opinion, which held that blacks were of "an inferior order" and not afforded rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Yet years ago when many were pushing for the statue to be removed from the State House grounds, it was no less a figure than Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, the late father of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who argued powerfully that it should stay. He and others capitalized on its presence to secure funding to build on the other side of the State House a much larger and more prominent monument to former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall — also a Marylander and among those most responsible for overturning the view of the Constitution espoused by Taney. "You want people to be aware of your past and also of your present and your future," Rawlings said years later. "We needed Taney to stay where he was to show the dichotomy between Taney and Marshall. With Taney gone, you wouldn't have that."
Robert E. Lee Park, however, is a different story. Lee was, rather famously, a Virginian, not a Marylander, and he has no particular connection to the area where the park now sits. Indeed, it's something of a historical accident that the park was named for him. Elizabeth Garrett White, one of the heirs to the B&O Railroad fortune, died in 1917, leaving no doubt from her will of her Southern sympathies, as The Sun reported at the time. She decreed that her mansion on East Mount Vernon Place be sold and that the proceeds be used to place "a handsome equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee" in Druid Hill Park, and she gave $20,000 to a handful of colleges in Virginia, including Washington and Lee.
Her fealty to the South is a bit odd, or at least emblematic of the divided loyalties the Civil War engendered, since then-B&O President John Garrett was a close confidant of Abraham Lincoln during the war and the B&O rail lines were a major factor in the Union victory. Whether for that reason or some other, her beloved nephew and executor, Robert Garrett, never followed through on the statue. Instead, nearly three decades later when he was serving as chairman of the city Recreation Commission, he got permission from the circuit court to use the money instead to establish a park named for Lee on city-owned land around Lake Roland.
Mr. Kamenetz said in an interview that the topic of the park's name has come up periodically in the years the county has been managing the facility, most recently a few months ago when the county was seeking state matching funds for improvements it was making there. Staff members did some research into what it would take to change the name, but the events last week in Charleston gave the idea some urgency, he said. "We are a very diverse county and are concerned to make sure we have symbols of our inclusiveness," not of potential sources of division, he said.
The Taney statue represents a past we should not forget and is put into the context of our present and future. It should stay. Robert E. Lee Park's name represents the idiosyncrasies of one person who died nearly 100 years ago and says nothing about our present and future. It should go.