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'A room with a different view’: Maryland unveils statues of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass in State House

Life-size statues of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass are dedicated at the Maryland State House.

Until Nov. 1, 1864, the day Maryland lawmakers officially approved emancipation, fugitive slaves Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass could not legally enter their home state of Maryland, let alone the State House in Annapolis.

On Monday, the two abolitionists received a place of honor in that building. Statues of the two leaders were unveiled and dedicated during a joint legislative session held outside the Old House Chamber, where slavery in Maryland was formally abolished.

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The installation of the statues of Tubman and Douglass marks the end of a nearly four-year-long push to honor the pair of abolitionists in the State House building, which still features controversial statues and artwork in an era of increasing scrutiny of such displays.

Until 2017, a statue of Roger B. Taney, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery and denied citizenship to African Americans, sat outside the Capitol. Lawmakers voted to remove the statue days after the death of a woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, who was among a crowd condemning an event where hundreds of white nationalists protested the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

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In October, the State House Trust, which manages the grounds and activities in the State House, voted to amend but keep a plaque paying tribute to both Union and Confederate soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War. A plate now covers a confederate flag depicted on the plaque, but it remains under the rotunda.

A black cloth covered the entire plaque during Monday’s ceremony at the request of House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones.

The movement to install the Douglass and Tubman statues began in 2016. Then-House Speaker Michael E. Busch and then-Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, both Democrats, proposed the plan, arguing the presence of the prominent African Americans was particularly important for the thousands of schoolchildren who tour the State House each year. Gov. Larry Hogan quickly embraced the idea.

The governor and lawmakers gathered in the State House rotunda for joint session Monday night to celebrate the statues. A crowd spilled out across the marble floors of the building’s main floor to witness the ceremony.

Elaine Rice Bachmann, the deputy state archivist, said it was regrettable that Busch, who died last April, could not be present to witness the installation of the Tubman and Douglass statues.

Tubman and Douglass were born into slavery in the 19th century on the Eastern Shore. After escaping, both became vocal advocates for abolition. Tubman helped many slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. Douglass went on to become an author and speaker. His autobiography, published in 1845, helped fuel the abolitionist movement.

The bronze likenesses, sculpted by StudioEIS, depict the pair as they would have appeared in 1864. Douglass, wearing a long coat and clutching a copy of his newspaper “Douglass’ Monthly,” is shown looking toward the building’s rotunda. Tubman, smaller in stature at a historically accurate 4 feet, 10 inches, is depicted staring intently at the front of the chamber where the anti-slavery measure would have been signed.

“This doesn’t change the past, but it does begin to open a room with a different view,” sculptor Ivan Schwartz said.

“This moment may not be unique to the state of Maryland," he added. "It is nevertheless a bold act of civic engagement.”

Historians have no evidence of Tubman visiting the State House, but Douglass did in 1874. He reportedly paced in front of a painting of George Washington and recited his 1783 speech resigning as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army by memory.

Neither of the abolitionists was present on the 1864 date when the state constitution was ratified to abolish slavery in Maryland. The Emancipation Proclamation, passed a year earlier, freed slaves in rebellious states, but did not apply to Maryland’s slave population.

Chris Haley, a director who studies the legacy of slavery for the Maryland State Archives, said many people who are familiar with Douglass and Tubman don’t realize their connection to Maryland.

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“We want to feel that the Maryland State House is about the most important people in the history of the state, and two of the most important people in the history of the state, as well as nationwide, are Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman,” he said. “We want to confirm that and make it known through the statuary that they are part of Maryland’s history.”

Descendants of both Tubman and Douglass were among the guests who attended Monday’s event. The hands of Douglass’ great-great-grandson Ken Morris were used as the model for the hands depicted in the Douglass statue.

The arrival of the statues coincides with new leadership in both branches of the state legislature, including Jones, who is Maryland’s first black and female speaker of the house, and Bill Ferguson, the first new Senate president in more than three decades.

Ferguson said the installation of the statues is a step forward in “bridging our history with our truth.”

Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said many historical discussions in Maryland have often focused on men like George Washington, Charles Carroll and William Paca.

“Those are the names that have been recorded and remembered … But we also know there were many names of people who were not recorded, who built this state, who built this building,” said Ferguson, noting that historians believe that slaves helped build the State House, even though their names were not recorded.

Jones said the statues are a reminder of the work that still needs to be done.

“We have to critically evaluate our laws and ask ourselves if we are complicit in any injustice and decide what we are willing to risk for a more perfect union,” she said.

Hogan said: "It is my hope that when we view these wonderful statues of these incredible Maryland heroes and as we reflect on the countless contributions of these remarkable leaders that it will help remind each of us to always stand on the side of goodness and love. And to stand up for unity and justice.”

The lengthy process of commissioning and installing the statues was the subject of criticism from some lawmakers. At 500 pounds each, the floor beneath the 250-year-old Old House Chamber had to be reinforced before the statues could be put in place, Bachmann said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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