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Removing enslaver’s statue not enough, Baltimore must also rename Canton and anything else honoring O’Donnell family | COMMENTARY

Surrounded by iron fencing, a statue of Capt. John O'Donnell (1749-1805) stands in the middle of Canton Square, nestled in the center of the commercial district of Canton.
Surrounded by iron fencing, a statue of Capt. John O'Donnell (1749-1805) stands in the middle of Canton Square, nestled in the center of the commercial district of Canton. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

As a Black homeowner living in Southeast Baltimore, the presence of John O’Donnell’s statue at Canton Square is more offensive to me than any statue of Christopher Columbus, and it is time to remove it. It sits in the middle of my neighborhood, Canton, which was once O’Donnell’s plantation. He named the area after a city in China he had traveled to.

The statue stands on the same grounds where Captain O’Donnell kept people enslaved. His initial fortune, earned mostly from selling opium and other goods from China to the rich elite, allowed him to own land that stretched east of Fells Point to Dundalk. On that wealth of land, he owned more than 30 enslaved Africans. They tended to his livestock and his peach and tobacco crops, and kept his house. They served as waitstaff for O’Donnell’s famously elaborate parties. O’Donnell was known to have gifted George Washington a hookah.

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It may shock some to know that, in a city that is currently 64% Black, the only time Canton’s Black population was in the majority was likely when the O’Donnell family was outnumbered by the slaves on their plantation, according to my research.

This raises the question: How does a majority white neighborhood still exist in a majority Black city? The answer is simple: racism. Land covenants, redlining and blockbusting have maintained this neighborhood as a stronghold of white supremacy since the founding of our city, even before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Before Francis Scott Key wrote about the rocket’s red glare, there was Canton. By the time we reached the Civil War, O’Donnell’s fortune had been leveraged by his son, Columbus O’Donnell, to launch the Canton Company, famous for manufacturing materials used by the B&O Railroad. All this, thanks to drugs, and free labor on the backs of enslaved people.

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Many, including some of my neighbors, would argue that the historical significance of these achievements warrants a place for O’Donnell’s statue in the square. The truth, as it usually is, is a little more complex. The statue was not erected until 1980. It was contracted to a sculptor by the city’s Board of Estimates after an organization, known as The Canton Improvement Association, decided they wanted the statue. Why would someone so important to our history not receive a statue until 1980?

It was a page out of the playbook of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which pushed for Confederate statues around the country, coupled with the pushback against the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, that set the stage. After riots erupted nationwide following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the city was thrust into a period of white flight. Baltimore was front and center for the rise, and solidification of white-stronghold neighborhoods. Neighborhoods like Guilford, Keswick, Roland Park, Hunting Ridge, and Canton fought to keep their whiteness alive.

It’s no small wonder that after racial housing discrimination was outlawed and desegregation was on its way, the region would erect a statue to a slave owner, in a neighborhood that was still named after his plantation. It would sit larger than life, in the middle of what was the cultural heart of the neighborhood, and any mention of O’Donnell’s enslavement practices, drugs or plantation would be whitewashed from memory. Its existence is a dubious nod to our dark past that I rank second, behind Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park, which opened three years after the assassination of Dr. King, a Georgia native.

It is for these reasons, The Linwood Project demands that Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young rename Canton; remove the captain’s statue; rename O’Donnell and Elliott streets (his wife’s maiden name) and rename the O’Donnell Heights neighborhood. Such nods to the shames of our past have no place in our city and must go if we wish to seek real healing and atonement for our past, and cultivate a Baltimore that welcomes everyone everywhere.

John Linwood (thelinwoodproj@gmail.com) is head of the Linwood Project, a campaign to bring about truth and reckoning to Southeast Baltimore that seeks to shine a light on the dark past of our city through visual art, poetry and literature.

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