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Monumental Decision

The Civil War ended long ago, but the battles rage on.

*Update following the final Jan. 14 public meeting of the special commission named by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to review the city’s four Confederate monuments: The seven commissioners voted by a 4-3 margin today to recommend removing the city’s Robert E. Lee-Stonewall Jackson monument from Wyman Dell and the Roger B. Taney bust in Mt. Vernon.

The commission also voted to keep, but add context to the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument in Bolton Hill and the Confederate Women’s monument near The Johns Hopkins University campus in Homewood. The commissioners will meet again privately before issuing their final report to the mayor, which is expected to be completed in 6-8 weeks.

The commission intends to offer the Robert E. Lee-Stonewall Jackson monument to the U.S. Park Service for placement on the Civil War battlefield of Chancellorsville, VA—where the two met in a scene depicted by the sculpture. The bust of Taney, the former Supreme Court chief justice who issued the infamous Dred Scott decision, is a replica of a similar bust in Annapolis. No consensus was reached by the commission regarding what should be done with the Taney bust, if it is ultimately removed.

The story below was published in Baltimore magazine this month and traces the history of Baltimore’s Confederate monuments and the more recent controversy surrounding their ongoing existence and meaning in the city. The story was posted online in mid-December as the commission was holding earlier public meetings:

A Chesapeake Bay breeze blusters across Point Lookout State Park as Confederate flags are raised, the whistling wind and scattering leaves adding solemnity to the funereal mid-October morning. When the Civil War began, the southern tip of St. Mary’s County had been a popular resort, filled with cottages, a hotel, a wharf, and a lighthouse. But after Gettysburg, the Union army turned the peninsula into a massive prisoner-of-war camp. By the end of the bloody conflict, some 50,000 Confederate troops had been interned, making it the North’s largest such institution. Of course, whether Maryland, a tobacco-growing, slavery-legal state that didn’t get around to voting on secession, was—or is—“in the North” remains debatable. Not in dispute is that conditions at Point Lookout deteriorated as its Confederate population exploded—an 80-foot granite obelisk here carries the names of the 3,382 known Confederate soldiers who died while incarcerated on the 40-acre grounds.

All of this, and other reasons, too, is why two-dozen Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) are taking part in this remembrance ceremony. A SCV stalwart, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Zebelean, leads the color guard. The group’s chaplain prays an invocation and a representative from the North Carolina Order of the Confederate Rose, a women’s group, lays a wreath, followed by a musket and cannon salute and the singing of “Dixie.” Not quite a full-on Civil War re-enactment, but similar.

Zebelean, still trim, in a gray calvary officer’s uniform, waist sword included, notes in his address that much has changed from the Civil War’s centennial and the sesquicentennial this past year. A Catonsville native, he is referring, directly, to local and national efforts to remove Confederate monuments from public squares in response to the murders of black churchgoers in Charleston, SC.

“A veritable tsunami of anti-Confederate vitriol,” Zebelean calls the reaction, highlighting the removal of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s statue from a Memphis park. (Zebelean doesn’t mention that Forrest was a slave-trader, accused of an infamous massacre of black Union soldiers, and the original Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.)

“In Baltimore, the mayor plans for a commission to advise her on what to do with the Confederate monuments in the city, most of which have been there for more than a century,” he continues. “Like sharks smelling blood, the feeding frenzy is on.”

Zebelean’s remarks are greeted with enthusiasm and cheers. They’re not intended to, nor do they, incite hostility or threats. As the folding chairs are picked up, the Sons of Confederate Veterans mingle in the cemetery’s parking lot with spouses and friends. There’s a tangible camaraderie, not unlike after a football game or, say, a traditional Veterans Day event.

“See, we’re not wearing white hoods,” says Maryland Division SCV commander Jay Barringer, smiling before driving home to Sykesville. “These people are engineers, bankers, and I.T. professionals,” adds Barringer, a North Carolina transplant with an infectious Southern drawl, who helps close the ceremony with a rendition of “Amazing Grace” on Scottish bagpipes.

Lost on Barringer, apparently, is the irony that the Christian hymn, published in 1779, was written by a former slave-ship captain named John Newton, whose epiphany during a violent North Atlantic storm led him into the clergy and England’s abolitionist movement.

On June 17, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old with Confederate sympathies, allegedly shot and killed nine Bible study members at Charleston’s nearly 200-year-old Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church. (He has pled not guilty for his upcoming trial.) Ten days later, activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome—coincidentally, a Maryland native—climbed a 30-foot pole outside the South Carolina State House and pulled down the Confederate flag there, an act for which she was arrested. Her protest, however, subsequently inspired further efforts here and throughout the U.S., as Zebelean related, to officially rid public areas of Confederate monuments and imagery.

Confederate Monuments all
Left to right: Roger B. Taney statue on Mt. Vernon Place, Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument in Bolton Hill, and Confederate Women's statue in Homewood. - Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum Inventory

In the days following the Charleston massacre, former Baltimore NAACP chapter president Marvin “Doc” Cheatham Sr. and other activists began calling for the removal of the prominent Robert E. Lee-Stonewall Jackson monument across from The Baltimore Museum of Art and also the renaming of Robert E. Lee Park in Baltimore County. Then, on the same afternoon as a Cheatham-led press conference—three days after Newsome’s direct action—Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the creation of a commission to review four of the city’s Confederate statues. It set in motion a six-month process that will lead to recommendations in the coming months as to what Baltimore should do, if anything, with its controversial statues—the Lee-Jackson monument; the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument in Bolton Hill; the Confederate Women’s statue in Homewood; and the Roger B. Taney statue on Mt. Vernon Place.

But while the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments gained urgency in light of the Charleston massacre, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other issues, it is not new. The memorialization of the Confederacy has been a source of contention ever since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

“Of course, the monuments are becoming flashpoints,” says Montgomery County resident and Harvard-trained sociologist James W. Loewen, the best-selling author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong. “They were intended all along to be divisive.” They’re not put in place to heal, Loewen says, “but to promote segregationist values.”

In fact, in an 1880 letter, an actual Confederate veteran named Charles Crane warned then-Baltimore Mayor Ferdinand Latrobe against building the Confederate monument proposed at the time.

“ . . . with a heart full of love and reverence for my fallen comrades, I am unwilling to see erected in the public streets of this city a monument to a dead idea, but which will be a standing menace, and a source of bitterness not only to a great number of the citizens of Baltimore and Maryland, but a great number of the people of the United States.”

Crane, obviously, proved more prophetic than he could imagine.

Already since Charleston—and 135 years after Crane’s plea was ultimately ignored—changes are underway across the state. In Rockville, a courthouse Confederate statue has been boarded up in preparation for a move to a nearby historical park. In Frederick, aldermen passed a resolution to remove from the steps of City Hall a bust of Taney—the Supreme Court chief justice who delivered the notorious Dred Scott decision that ruled slaves remain the property of their owners in free states and that all blacks were not, and never could be, full U.S. citizens, including those who were “free.” From Annapolis, Gov. Larry Hogan requested the Motor Vehicle Administration stop issuing and recall commemorative Confederate license plates, and in Baltimore County, the name of Robert E. Lee Park (owned by the city, but operated by the county) was changed to Lake Roland on the county’s website.

These may seem like knee-jerk reactions, but efforts to remove the Taney bust in Frederick, to block the issuance of Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates, and to change the state song from “Maryland, My Maryland”—a Confederate battle hymn calling on residents to spurn “the Northern scum!”—have been going on for two decades.

As evidence of the challenges of renaming or remaking decades-old and century-old landmarks, the Lake Roland change has managed to draw criticism from even those who wanted the Robert E. Lee name stricken. That’s because of the new name’s association with the Roland Park Company—the neighborhood’s founding developer, which used racially restrictive housing covenants to promote white-only segregation.

“The problem we have had is that both African-Americans and Caucasians, and I’m talking about our elected officials, know so little about history,” says Cheatham. “We have leadership that doesn’t understand the city’s history and just allowed the Freedom House [a former civil-rights hub where national figures like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt met with local black leaders] on Druid Hill Avenue to be demolished.”

As Cheatham points out, it is exactly the history, artistic and political values, and intention behind Baltimore’s Confederate public monuments—erected between 1887 and 1948—that the special commission is tasked with discerning. More difficult will be sorting out the role the monuments should play going forward: The commission could recommend leaving the monuments alone; adding historical signage, putting the statues in some type of context; relocating one or more to the Civil War Museum on President Street, for example; or removing them from view altogether. Some of these options, naturally, are more expensive than others.

Three weeks after the Sons of Confederate Veterans memorial service in Southern Maryland, Loewen and Eli Pousson, director of preservation at Baltimore Heritage, presented research around the monuments to the commission at a crowded City Hall meeting. They explained that such statues, essentially, were erected to help build the now century-and-a-half-in-the-making mythology of the “Lost Cause.” More than inanimate objects, Confederate monuments embody a broader, post-Civil War effort to rework history. They are concrete representations of a campaign begun almost immediately after the war in Maryland, other border states, and across the South to recast what was a rebellion to preserve slavery into a noble “Lost Cause” fought for “states’ rights” by honorable and courageous men. Or, as the inscription on the Lee-Jackson monument describes the horseback-riding generals: “Christian soldiers . . . [who] waged war like gentlemen.”

There’s no doubt that such efforts have been successful. In a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, 48 percent of respondents said the Civil War was mainly about states’ rights; only 38 percent said it was mostly about slavery, while 9 percent said it was about both. Those figures startle historians such as UCLA professor Joan Waugh, co-editor of The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, who says, “It’s insane not to acknowledge the primary role of slavery.” She points not just to secession documents, but also speeches from the period, “which are all about protecting the institution of slavery.”

And if there’s any doubt that this desire to paint the Civil War in a new light continues, consider Texas, where 5 million freshly written textbooks that further play down the role of slavery were introduced to schools this fall.

“They were intended to be divisive . . . to promote segregationist values.”

“The secession documents are online,” says Loewen. “South Carolina’s statement—and they were the first to secede—spells out in the first sentence that it’s about slavery. The others do the same. These were written by Southern leaders who wanted strong federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act after Northern states began passing laws that nullified its effect. They were pissed off at what New England states were doing.”

In Baltimore, Pousson says, Confederate memorials present more than a reminder of the city’s mixed North-South allegiances. “The meaning of the works is not confined to the Civil War,” Pousson highlights in his report to the commission, “but reflects the racist reaction against civil rights in Maryland and the South from the 1860s to the 1960s.”

For decades now, the Sons of Confederate Veterans have celebrated Robert E. Lee’s and Stonewall Jackson’s birthdays—which fall four and six days, respectively, after King’s and thus on King’s holiday weekend—at the Lee-Jackson monument. And for the fourth year, Quakers from Stony Run Friends will protest the SCV ceremony with a silent vigil.

Ann Kehinde, who attends the Stony Run meetings, lives across the street from the Lee-Jackson monument with her two biracial children and her husband, who is black. It was her son, Suraju, now a college freshman, channeling his frustration over the veneration of the Confederate generals on King’s birthday, who initiated the talks about an appropriate Quaker counter demonstration.

“As my children studied the Civil War in school, they were at first puzzled as to why this commemoration took place, and then they were angry that it was held on the Saturday before Dr. King’s birthday was celebrated,” Kehinde says. “I think we have come to a point in our city’s history where we must recognize the pain caused by those who continue to glorify the Confederacy. For me, this statue is a daily reminder.”

More recently, about two months ago, the Lee-Jackson monument ignited another kind of confrontation.

After the October 29 meeting of the Confederate monument commission, artist Pablo Machioli, with assistance from activist friends, placed a 13-foot, 400-pound sculpture of a pregnant black woman—her fist raised—directly in front of the Lee-Jackson double-equestrian statue. His piece was inspired by black resistance to oppression and full of symbolism, not the least of which, Machioli explains, is that “we all come from a woman, from an African woman.” A Uruguayan who says he has experienced police brutality in Baltimore, Machioli didn’t want to create a work that faced off with the Lee-Jackson monument, but one that expressed in a similarly triumphal manner, themes of peace, brotherhood, and social justice.

His work stood for 22 hours until it was ordered removed by the City Recreation and Parks Department and the police arrived. At that point, Machioli brought the statue back to the Copycat building in Station North where he has a studio. Soon afterward, the statue was vandalized—the woman’s pregnant stomach kicked in and the “N-word” spray-painted across her body—while it was being kept in one of the building’s public walkways.

It didn’t end there, however.

After the statue was carried inside Machioli’s studio to protect it from further damage, poet Nakia Brown, who also lives in the Copycat building, wrote a series of seven poems in response to Machioli’s sculpture—“that looked like me,” she says—and its destruction.

Her poems were pulled from the wall near where the statue had been placed, urinated upon, and left on the floor.

“People told me that they couldn’t believe that it happened in the Copycat, which is artist housing,” says Brown. “But for me, as a black woman who grew up in Baltimore, I don’t live in that same bubble. I was surprised that someone who lives in this community would deface a piece of art. It is not shocking someone wrote that word, or racism exists here.”

The final hearing of the special commission to review Baltimore’s public Confederate monuments is scheduled for January 14. The commission’s report and recommendations are expected to be delivered to the mayor early this year.

“I want them destroyed,” Brown says of the Confederate monuments, pausing to consider her words. “I want them removed. They didn’t deserve to be there in the first place.”