As we mark the one-year anniversary of the removal of four monuments here in Baltimore, I am left with a nagging question: Are we any closer to solving the dilemma of how we recognize important historical figures, one that is different than the pervasive white male, figurative representations that dominate America’s landscape?

In March of this year, after the removal of the Lee and Jackson monument, Baltimore City public officials came up with a “solution” for this specific site. A tree-lined area close to where the monument once stood was renamed “Harriet Tubman Grove.” While the road to get to this place in time was certainly paved with good intentions, the absence of Harriet Tubman as a figurative depiction is a troubled compromise. Not to mention, there is a dramatic irony and unfortunate symbolism associated with the history of black slavery and trees, which were often used for lynching.


Some may recall that Baltimore tried to honor Harriet Tubman in a public space years ago, but criticism of the artist’s depiction – Harriet holding a musket – kept the design from finding a permanent home.

Baltimore officials on Saturday will formally rededicate a portion of Wyman Park Dell — where a statue of two Confederate generals stood for decades — in honor of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman.

In 2000, muralist Mike Alewitz was commissioned by Baltimore Clayworks to paint a series of murals around Maryland honoring the life of Harriet Tubman. The first in the series was a mural painted on a freestanding wall and placed at her birthplace in Cambridge. The second, a mural painted indoors at the University of Maryland’s Eastern Shore campus, depicted Harriet Tubman and fellow abolitionist and Maryland native, Frederick Douglass. The third mural in the series was painted on an outside wall at Magnolia Middle School in Harford County. During the construction of this mural, it fell victim to overnight vandalism with spray-painted racial slurs and symbols.

The final design in the series was to culminate with a mural to be painted on an outside wall of the Associated Black Charities (ABC) in downtown Baltimore. But the ABC declined to have the mural painted due to its depiction of Harriet Tubman with a musket in her hand, and the appropriateness of displaying a gun in art in a city that sees roughly 300 murders a year. While the ABC had a right to decline the mural it was an interesting position to take considering the number of historical monuments and memorials in cities around the country that depict white men with guns or swords.

At the time, Mayor Martin O'Malley jumped into the newsworthy controversy and stated that he would find a home for the Harriet Tubman mural. The design was displayed on a large canvas at Artscape that summer, but it never found a permanent space on a public wall in Baltimore. How does a free mural funded by reputable Arts programs not find a home in a city's public space?

More than 200 local residents and elected leaders gathered in a tree-lined corner of Baltimore on Saturday to rededicate the space, which had long venerated two Confederate generals, to the famed abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman.

Fast forward to 2018, and we are faced with the same problem: the need to depict historical events within a homogenous context, void of realistic, figurative representations outside the non-white, non-male canon. Within this realm, society would rather recognize a person for their name rather than use a historically accurate image, e.g. naming roads, buildings and, now, a grove of trees. Harriet Tubman and others like her are worth more than just a symbolic association.

Removing Confederate-era monuments completely is a form of censorship and most proponents of art would agree that this is contagious. Similarly, this was the case when Mike Alewitz was asked to alter his Tubman design and substitute a staff for Harriet’s musket, before it was declined altogether.

One plausible alternative would be to install new works of art in proximity of existing ones. Or, alter the existing structures, outside of vandalism, to allow the viewer to draw new meaning from these moments in history. A monument of Harriet Tubman next to confederate general Robert E. Lee would create new narratives, while challenging old ones.

These are the four monuments linked to the Confederacy that were removed from city property overnight Aug. 15 into Aug. 16.

According to statements made by Mayor Catherine Pugh the cost of removing the four monuments, which now sit in storage, is close to $20,000. I wonder: How much does a free mural cost these days?

David Anderson is a middle school art teacher in Baltimore. His email is doandersonart@gmail.com.