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Mitchell v. Byrd

In downtown Frederick last Sunday, somebody splashed a bucket of red paint on the bust of Roger Brooke Taney, the Supreme Court justice from Calvert County who wrote the Dred Scott decision maintaining that blacks were not U.S. citizens. The vandalism was erased, but the fate of that statue is less clear — a city alderwoman has been leading a fight to have it removed.

In Towson last month, Baltimore County renamed Robert E. Lee Park to Lake Roland Park, in deference to those who are offended that a figure remembered in Maryland chiefly for leading the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War would be so honored. We support that renaming — which has not yet been by Baltimore City, which owns the park — but we also recognize that excising the names and monuments of historical figures from public spaces isn't always the most suitable course of action for communities grappling with their history and attempting to reconcile it with modern sensibilities.

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The University of Maryland, College Park's latest struggles with its segregationist past are a useful illustration of this challenge. Last spring, students at the school launched a campaign to remove the name of H.C. "Curley" Byrd from the campus' landmark football stadium because, as the university's president, he supported "separate but equal" policies, refusing admission to African-American students up until the early 1950s.

Wallace D. Loh, Maryland's current president, agreed to form a committee to advise him on the matter, and its findings are due before year's end, with the ultimate fate of Byrd Stadium to be determined by the university's board upon his recommendation. But he's also done more than seek counsel, recently moving to name the university's Art-Sociology Building after the late Parren J. Mitchell, the former Baltimore congressman who famously fought to be admitted to the school. And he plans soon to install an 8-foot-tall statue of Frederick Douglass, the Maryland-born former slave and abolitionist, in front of Hornbake Library positioned to be looking out at Byrd Stadium, his fist upraised.

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In a meeting with The Sun's editorial board Monday, Mr. Loh made the comparison of this approach to what was done outside the State House where a 19th century Taney statue has been retained, a choice made easier by the addition of a statue honoring former Justice Thurgood Marshall at a prominent spot on Lawyer's Mall. Both men are sons of Maryland who played key roles in history, providing visitors with an opportunity to be educated about Justice Marshall's efforts on behalf of civil rights as well as those of Chief Justice Taney against them.

As Mr. Loh also noted, Byrd's more positive contributions to the University of Maryland are substantial, as he presided over nearly two decades of growth and rising prominence for the school while also exhibiting support for segregation that was typical of the era. Context is key: Having a stadium named for Byrd on the College Park campus makes some sense given his role in building the institution, and not incidentally his having been a football player and athletic director. The choice of whether to keep his name on it is less like deciding whether to rename a park on whose land Lee may well never have set foot and more like deciding whether to rename Washington and Lee University, of which Lee served as president and where he is buried. But if we are to keep Byrd's name, we also should take this opportunity to have a candid discussion about Maryland's history, the good, the bad and the ugly.

How many students are even aware of Parren Mitchell, not only that he was the first African-American elected to Congress from Maryland (and served eight terms, helping found the Congressional Black Caucus) but that he was refused graduate enrollment in College Park unless he was willing to take the required courses alone in Baltimore? Mr. Mitchell sued with two other prospective students and won, the case one of those taken up by the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall in the lead-up to the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 that struck down segregation in public schools.

How fitting that the link can be traced from Douglass to Mitchell and Marshall, this path toward civil rights, on the campus of Maryland's flagship university. And whatever happens to Byrd Stadium, the students who had the vision and energy to petition campus leadership can already claim victory — bringing greater attention to Mitchell (who died in 2007) and his important role in desegregation. Statues are a rarity on campus, and we must admit that the possibility of a Douglass statute challenging Curley's legacy, a symbol of moral awakening captured in that fist permanently pointed toward the stadium, sounds quite appealing.

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Edmund Burke is often remembered for his quote about those not knowing history being destined to repeat it. Here's another of the 18th century Anglo-Irish statesman's lesser-known quotes that seems just as suitable for the occasion: "He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper." Perhaps a bit of that perspective is needed in the debates over historical monuments as well.

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