UPDATE: As The Sun's Luke Broadwater just reported on Twitter, Baltimore County has asked the city to change the name of Robert E. Lee Park to Lake Roland Park. The city owns the park but the county operates it, as the letter notes.
Baltimore County Administrative Officer Fred Homan's letter to City Solicitor George Nilson says, "In a region as diverse as the Baltimore metropolitan area, the new name is much more sensitive to the diverse population that visits and utilizes the park. The County would like to make this change as soon as possible, and appreciates your prompt consideration of this request."
On Friday, the Baltimore County government acknowledged this blog post and the petition linked at the end after The Sun's Pamela Wood tweeted it out. "The park is owned by the City & operated by the County. The County will contact the City regarding the name," @BaltCoGov tweeted. And now they have.
Your move, George Nilson.
The murder of nine African-American people by a white racist in a South Carolina church has sparked a lot of conversations about symbols of racism and white supremacy in American culture. Many have focused on the Confederate flag, which still flies over the statehouse in South Carolina. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates has a powerful piece, "Take Down the Confederate Flag Now," in which he points out the Confederacy's explicit, defined basis in white supremacy ("Our new government is founded upon . . . the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man," Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, said in 1861), and the imperative for South Carolina to, finally, remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse:
Moral cowardice requires choice and action. It demands that its adherents repeatedly look away, that they favor the fanciful over the plain, myth over history, the dream over the real. Here is another choice.
Take down the flag. Take it down now.
Put it in a museum. Inscribe beneath it the years 1861-2015. Move forward. Abandon this charlatanism. Drive out this cult of death and chains. Save your lovely souls. Move forward. Do it now.
In his own impassioned words last night (below—worth watching in full), Jon Stewart also referenced the symbols of white supremacy that linger in America: "We are steeped in [racist] culture," he said. "In South Carolina, the roads that people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That's insanity. That's racial wallpaper. You can't allow that."
Baltimore has its own symbols of white supremacy. In January, Marc Steiner Show producer Stefanie Mavronis explored our city's considerable Confederate legacy in a piece called "Why Does Baltimore Have So Many Confederate Monuments?" In it, she points out that Baltimore had a lot of Southern sympathizers during the Civil War and that the original words to the Maryland state anthem include the line, "Huzza! We spurn the Northern scum!"
To this day, leaders of the Confederacy have considerable places of honor in Baltimore City, which is 64 percent black. Straddling the city's northern border with Baltimore County is Robert E. Lee Park, named after the leader of Confederate forces who, as Coates points out, "took special care to enslave free blacks during their Northern campaign."
Robert E. Lee Park is 450 acres of beautiful land, filled with hiking trails, a dog park, and a lake for canoeing and kayaking. I take my kids there to hike, but I avoid going through the main entrance so that I don't have to explain who Robert E. Lee is and why we named a park after him. (I'm embarrassed enough that I have to explain to my boys—both football fans—why some people named a football team a racial slur that they are never, ever to call anyone.) I know some black folks who refuse to go there because of the name. Who can blame them?
And Robert E. Lee Park is not the only Confederate symbol in Baltimore, as Mavronis points out. There’s the Lee and Jackson Monument in Charles Village, which was built in 1948 to honor Lee and fellow Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument (Spirit of the Confederacy) in Station North features a winged angel (Glory) lifting a Confederate soldier. And the Confederate Women’s Monument at North Charles and University Parkway, which features two Confederate women, one holding the body of a fallen soldier, was donated by the state of Maryland.
It might not be realistic or even desirable to tear down these statues—Mavronis herself says, "[p]ersonally, I don’t think the City should tear down the Lee-Jackson Monument or the other Confederate monuments in Baltimore," and calls them "an important relic of our history that we can all learn from."
Statues are part of history, and we can point to them as reminders of a time when we honored men and women who fought to preserve white supremacy. But by keeping the name of Robert E. Lee Park, we suggest that we still honor such men, and we should not.
It is long past time for Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and the State of Maryland to change the name of this park. At the very least, this can be a symbolic gesture of our collective intent to chase the scourge of white supremacy from our culture. There will still be much work to be done.