Over the last few weeks, our nation and our state have once again wrestled with our troubled American past. As Confederate symbols are removed throughout our country, now is the time for Maryland to turn its attention to our state song.
In recent days and in the wake of George Floyd’s death, an increasing number of Confederate monuments and symbols have been removed. There is a growing chorus calling to change the names of U.S. military bases named after Confederate officers, and a push to move statues associated with the Confederacy from the nation’s rotunda.
Maryland can likewise address its own racist history by removing its state song, as Maryland House Speaker Adrienne Jones has urged.
During the Civil War, Maryland was a “border state.” We were too divided to be either fully with the Union or with the South. Occupied by federal forces for much of the war, the people of Maryland made contributions to both sides of the conflict. This divided history should not be glossed over or forgotten. We have heroic Marylanders to take pride in from this era, such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and the soldiers — black and white — who fought for the Union. These Marylanders are not celebrated in our state anthem.
Instead, we commemorate the perspective of Marylanders who joined the Confederacy. It was these Marylanders who sang “Maryland, My Maryland” as their battle hymn as they marched to the Battle of Antietam with General Robert E. Lee. Marylander John Wilkes Booth likewise quoted part of the sixth stanza as he assassinated President Lincoln.
I have the honor and privilege to teach history to the children of Maryland. This is a source of great joy, but also a stark responsibility. This is the song that I must direct our students to if I want them to learn our state anthem. It is no surprise they do not know it. We do not sing or celebrate it. Once they get past their surprise that it is set to the tune of the carol, “O Christmas Tree,” they are shocked at the language of the sixth and eighth stanzas, which describe President Lincoln as a tyrant and Union forces as vandals. You may find the whole text on the “Kids Page” of the Maryland Secretary of State.
Defenders of the current song will inevitably point out that it references the heroic contribution of Maryland in the War of Independence and the Mexican American War. That is true, but these stanzas are subverted into a pediment upon which later stanzas celebrating the ideologies of both the Confederacy and “states’ rights” are built. That is why the song was adopted in 1939. There are better ways to teach this history, without resorting to the propaganda of a limited and discredited perspective.
In historic moments such as these, we are reminded of what African Americans never forget: that the burden of our past weighs most heavily on their present.
I urge the governor and our legislators to recognize the gravity of this moment and remove this song as our anthem without any further delay. We cannot wait for advisory panels to identify alterations or a replacement. This song should not be given official status on our state’s “Kids Page” any longer.
I suggest instead that we mark the time we would spend singing our anthem standing in silent solidarity with those who have suffered racial injustice. This would be a better lesson in history until we find a song our students will enjoy learning and we can take pride in singing together.
Zachary Dziedzic (email@example.com) is a resident of Baltimore City and a high school U.S. history teacher.