Thursday, October 29, 2015

What to Do About Four monuments to the "Lost Cause"/Confederacy in Baltimore City?

On July 9, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read for the first time in New York in front of George Washington and his troops. In reaction to what had been read, soldiers and citizens went to Bowling Green, a park in Manhattan, where a lead statue of King George III on horseback stood. The mob of people pulled down the statue, and later the lead was melted down to make musket balls, or bullets for use in the war for independence.  Careful records were kept, and it is known that 42, 088 bullets were made.  

The Mayor of Baltimore has created a commission to advise her on what actions to take with regard to four monuments in the "Monumental City" that were created to memorialize a Chief Justice of the United States, two Generals who fought for the Confederacy, the Marylanders (some 20,000+ by the best estimate) who went South to fight for the Confederacy, and one to the wives, sweethearts, and other women in Maryland who supported and sympathized with them.  All were created with varying degrees of private funds and placed on land that was, or became, public.  They are:

Roger B. Taney Monument (1887)
Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1903)
Confederate Women’s Monument (1919)
Lee-Jackson Monument (1948)

For an excellent brief history of the monuments and the contemporary controversies that surrounded them, anyone interested should read Eli Pousson's  testimony to the Mayor's Commission:
The arguments as to what to do are all over the map, so to speak. One argument is  obliterate them.  Another is to move them from where they are to a more suitable place (wherever that may be).  Another, made in jest, was to exile them to Fort Carroll in the Bay, a fort designed by an Army Engineer named Robert E. Lee (one and the same) and named for one of the largest slave owners in Maryland, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton.  In many ways the naming of the fort designed to defend Baltimore Harbor was itself an ironic choice as Charles Carroll of Carrollton owned British Navy Stock at the time of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, and you could say, helped pay for the bombs that burst over the fort on that fateful night in September 1814 (see an essay I wrote on Carroll's fortune for "Anywhere So Long as it Be Freedom").

As to my personal opinion, I think the whole exercise needs to be re-examined and re-framed within a legally binding context that removes it from the political arena.

In the first place all public monuments in the city should be in the care and under the supervision of an a-political Public Parks and Monuments Commission (or possibly a legally reinforced CHAP) composed of staggered term limited members (six years), that has a well funded budget (half public, half private) with the legal mandate to maintain and interpret existing monuments and parks, as well as inspiring and funding new parks and monuments.  In my opinion, every neighborhood should have a public park memorializing something.  I personally like the Mike Beer bench in Stony Run Park with its notebook for those who care to reflect in it.  Given the huge spaces within blocks created by Thomas Poppleton's 1822 survey and projection of the city streets, it would seem sensible to make those spaces public green spaces shared by the row houses around them as well as providing access to others from the alleys.  In some of them you could memorialize the residents of the Alley Houses that once were crowded into those spaces.

Assuming  that such an independent commission was created by statute to take on the concerns of the community with regard to what to do about existing monuments that were created to memorialize causes and people that have fallen into disfavor (in most instances for good reason, I emphatically add), how should those monuments be treated? Should they be pulled down and melted into bullets?  Should they be moved into an obscure corner of some public land in hopes that few people would see them?  How should the very limited resources for the creation, care, and preservation of public monuments be allocated?

I would hope that the current monuments would stay right where they are but with the offensive dedicatory language removed from their pedestals, and plaques to well thought out  interpretive signage that places the statues and their creation into their proper historical context.  At the same time the city should use the power of GPS signage and social media for smart phones (there isn't a child of 9 and above who isn't familiar with, and probably has access to a smart phone) to explain its historic places, monuments, and public spaces.    Furthermore I would hope  that the monuments and public art of the city would become a  required component of a required course on the history of the city that every public and private school child has to pass before graduating.  In order for this to work well, the class should be taught on line at the same time throughout all public and private schools with the classroom teacher and his/her students  interacting with the on-line teacher/presenter/instructor paid for by the City.   At the present time a number of interactive on-line classes provided by major universities reach classes of hundreds across national boundaries.  Such a Baltimore City wide course needs to reach students in every 5th or 6th grade classroom in the city, public and private.

The recent demonstrations in which no shot was fired and no person fatally injured, demonstrated that young people of a certain age do communicate well by social media and can use it effectively to move themselves out of harms way and stage a legitimate protest at the same time. Yes, drug dealers and others exploited the children and looting got out of hand, as almost always happens to legitimate protests in Maryland (the railroad strike of 1877 is one of the best historical examples of pushing a real need for productive discourse to unwarranted violence).  Pull the monuments of the monumental city into the nexus of the next generation's understanding of why things got to where they are, and to teach what they have in the way of power to effect change, not by pulling down the monuments of the past, but by erecting new ones (virtually and physically) in the process telling the stories of the old ones in a way that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Motivate our children to be good citizens and provide them with the opportunities to make good on their personal visions of success and achievement.



Jim Loewen said...

That "right where they are" part gets me. Why "right" there? With such emphasis?

Surely there is no significance to RIGHT there. That merely happens to be where the neo-Confederates put 'em, back in 1948, 1887, etc., except for those that have been moved in the interim.

So the only REAL significance of those spots? Keeping them right there proves that "we" (whoever we are) will not give in to any present-day pressure to protest these monuments. We'll not be bullied! Or, put differently, "they" (whoever they are) will not be heard.

Maybe the emphasis on "right where they are" begs to be re-thought? -- Jim Loewen

Edward Papenfuse said...


Where they are is part of the history of the city that needs to be remembered and discussed. Why spend money and energy moving them to new locations while failing to provide even the barest context of teaching about why they came to be created where they were created in the first place. Frankly both won't be done (moving and teaching), but by leaving the 'monuments' where they are, it forces continued discussion, hopefully confined to the educational process. I still believe that my solution for the Taney statue is the best way to approach understanding and going beyond existing monumental sculpture where ever it has been placed. I personally would prefer the expenditure of public funds on teaching public history (the city's history) across all grades at the same time of day, collectively, in private and public schools. The racial divide in the city is perpetuated by the chasm between private and public schools in the city. A course taught in the classroom and simultaneously on line that included the stories related to the monuments as well as discussion as to where there was a need for new ones would do more for dissolving racial tensions than consigning these to a fate 'still unlearned'. Also, the money used in moving the four would be better spent on new memorials, in new parks such as one remembering the several thousand slaves that left Baltimore from such places as Jackson's wharf in Fell's Point, the site of which is now next to a lovely patch of grass that extends out into the harbor with nothing on it.

Jim Loewen said...

This is an old rhetorical ploy: the money could be better spent doing ________.

A parallel: with regard to the ongoing controversy about the Washington Redskins, I get the same thing: why attack "Redskins" when Native children need better basic education on the rez, there's alcoholism, etc., etc. Of course, the people who tell me to leave "Redskins" alone have never done ONE thing to help provide basic education on the rez, deal with alcoholism, or do anything else positive about Native people. On the contrary, it is my Native allies in the "redskins" struggle who are ALSO on the front lines there.

The key point being: you make a false dichotomy. Since money is fungible, why on earth would it be the expenditures of THESE thousands of dollars (but probably not millions) that, if spent to move monuments and contextualize them, would somehow prevent the improvement of education (by social media or otherwise) elsewhere in the Baltimore Public Schools?

Your Taney "solution" was creative, indeed wonderful. As you know, I was planning to write it up in SURPRISES ON THE LAND. Indeed, I DID write it up; that's where some of my paper on why Taney in Baltimore needs to be moved came from. I just haven't finished the book! (Sigh.)

But it is not the ONLY solution, and I don't think you have even suggested it for Baltimore. (That is, you haven't suggested a "face-off" with a new sculpture of Thurgood Marshall facing Taney in Mt. Vernon Square.) New times demand new solutions. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

And ... I am done.

Anonymous said...

Why should the statue of Roger B Taney be altered in any way, or removed at all? Notwithstanding his unfortunate choice of words in the Dred Scott decision, Taney was a very able, if not exceptional, jurist. Maryland has never produced another Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, have they? Like all of us, Roger B Taney was a man of his times. Indeed, Thurgood Marshall was a man of his times, and may, in a century from now be seen as little more than a racial activist/advocate.

Mr Loewen, you have a well known liberal bias. So I discount much of your opinion on this purely local matter.