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Removing O’Donnell statue: a critical step toward aligning Canton with community’s values | COMMENTARY

The Statue of Capt. John O'Donnell is removed from O'Donnell Square in Canton. April 5, 2021 (McKenna Oxenden/Baltimore Sun)
The Statue of Capt. John O'Donnell is removed from O'Donnell Square in Canton. April 5, 2021 (McKenna Oxenden/Baltimore Sun) (McKenna Oxenden/Baltimore Sun)

A more inclusive Canton starts today. The Canton Anti-Racism Alliance, founded in July 2020, is a coalition of volunteers dedicated to effectuating long-term, impactful changes in our Baltimore City neighborhood to foster a more diverse, equitable, inclusive and welcoming community. Led by Canton Community Association President Mark Edelson, we represent a diverse group of residents, educators, and historians from Canton and throughout the city. We meet monthly to formulate strategies that will usher in transformative change.

From the outset, the alliance began to critically assess the history of our community and, in doing so, identified several initiatives with the goal of bringing the tone and tenor of the community in alignment with Canton’s values. With that in mind, the removal of the statue of Captain John O’Donnell (an enslaver) from O’Donnell Square Park became our top priority.

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History tells us that in 1786, Captain John O’Donnell, who made his fortune trading in the Far East, purchased 11 acres of land east of Harris Creek and called it Canton after the port city in China. By 1796, his property had grown to over 1,100 acres and was a large working plantation, enslaving 48 people at the time of his death in 1805. A statue in his honor was erected in O’Donnell Square Park (1021 S. Linwood Street, Baltimore) in 1980.

In July, the alliance and City Councilmember Zeke Cohen began soliciting comments and conversations about the removal of the O’Donnell statue. Among the feedback received was a letter from a long-time Canton resident, who purchased her home nearly two decades ago. She shared how depressing and dehumanizing it felt to walk by a monument to someone who enslaved Black people.

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In recent comments in response to community members who have argued for the statue to remain, she stated: “There is simply no way that we can (or should) glorify [an enslaver] by naming streets or a monument after him. Healing from trauma must, by necessity, require us to also move away from any remaining vestiges of a bitterly oppressive past in the history of African-Americans. We have evolved. As such, we can (and should) do better.”

On Nov. 12, the alliance sent a letter to (then) Baltimore City Mayor Jack Young seeking the removal of the statue. In December, former City Council President Brandon Scott became mayor of Baltimore. On Jan. 11, the alliance, in an effort to open a line of communication with the new mayor, sent a revised letter to Mayor Scott.

These efforts have been supported by our community. To date almost 1,000 individuals have signed a Change.org petition to remove the statue. This issue also sparked several opinion editorials in The Baltimore Sun, coverage by Baltimore TV stations, and impassioned threads on local community social media pages.

And on Monday, April 5, the statue was removed.

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Moving forward, the Canton Anti-Racism Alliance has several initiatives underway, including the placement of a historic marker documenting the names of those whom O’Donnell enslaved and updates to the Canton Community Association website to more accurately reflect the role of Indigenous people and people of African descent in the story of our neighborhood’s development. The alliance also hosted a virtual conversation with Dr. Lawrence T. Brown on April 6 to discuss his new book, “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America.” Continuing our work, the Canton Anti-Racism Alliance hosts virtual meetings the fourth Tuesday of every month. Everyone is welcome. To join, please email president@cantoncommunity.org.

It is vital we continue coming together to educate ourselves, to listen to one another and to support all voices. As such, we remain committed to creating a more diverse, equitable, inclusive and welcoming community.

Mark Edelson (president@cantoncommunity.org) is president of the Canton Community Association; he writes on behalf of the Canton Anti-Racism Alliance. Also contributing to this op-ed are members of the alliance’s O’Donnell Subcommittee: Sheila Anderson, Torbin Green, Julie M. Kichline, Joe Montanye, Vic Victoriano, Haydon Wyatt.

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