On Baltimore and its monuments

I thank City Paper for sharing the short radio piece I produced with my colleague Mark Gunnery for The Marc Steiner Show on WEAA 88.9 FM over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend in January (“Why Does Baltimore Have So Many Confederate Monuments?”). But I cringed when I read my words (“I don’t think the City should tear down the Lee-Jackson Monument or the other Confederate monuments in Baltimore”) in the context of the recent racist shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

To clarify, I do believe it’s crucial to remember our history in Baltimore, but I would not be upset if Baltimore’s Confederate monuments were removed from our parks. In fact, I would be ecstatic if those monuments were replaced by someone to whom tribute is rarely made in our physical landscape, such as Harriet Tubman, whose life and work we rarely see fully represented and appreciated.

If you find it surprising that only one of Baltimore’s four Civil War monuments honors the Union (which, by the way, was the only one of those monuments the city paid for), you may also find it hard to believe that “The City of Monuments” is home to only five monuments depicting black people, according to the Monument City blog. There are two monuments to Frederick Douglass, one outside the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park in Fells Point and another on Morgan State University’s campus; one monument to Baltimore-born U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall outside of the Garmatz U.S. Courthouse on Pratt Street; the amazing Billie Holliday monument at Pennsylvania and LaFayette; and a monument dedicated to black soldiers outside of City Hall.

To put that into context, less than 6 percent of Baltimore’s monuments depict black people in a city where more than 63 percent of the population is black. Only one of those monuments depicts a black woman. One of those monuments doesn’t specifically depict anyone. For a city so incredibly rich in African-American history and culture, why are we OK with that?

I don’t want Baltimore’s Confederate monuments to be demolished, followed by us giving ourselves a pat on the back for being anti-racist. If we want to understand and address racism and white supremacy in Baltimore, we cannot forget our history, however ugly. I was educated in public schools in Baltimore County and I never learned about Baltimore’s conflicted role in the Civil War. And most of the history I learned in school was taught as happening in the distant past, very separate from the present in which we live. It was not until researching the Lee-Jackson equestrian statue in my neighborhood that I learned that history.

Better understanding Baltimore’s complicated loyalties during the Civil War in the 19th century helps me contextualize a Baltimore that would pioneer residential segregation policies in the 20th century. Those things inform everything from the historically rooted racist undertones I grew up seeing between the county and the city, to war-on-drugs policies that led to the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.

For those concerned about losing our history with the removal of the Confederate monuments, wouldn’t the following statement be effective?: “Up until 2015, Baltimore was home to three monuments honoring the Confederacy.” We could better engage with these sculptures, which outside of their historical context are masterful works of art, in a museum, where they could be properly historically contextualized. I do not think public funding should be used for the move to a museum, but we should not assume that public funding would be the only option considering the private funding that put these monuments there in the first place. It would be even more powerful to see those monuments next to pictures of the ceremonies and counter-protests that take place outside of them each year. Or, as my boss Marc Steiner posited, all of the monuments could be relocated together to a dedicated Civil War park that people interested in that history could visit, which could potentially address issues around historical preservation.

In my radio piece, I created a false dichotomy: that these monuments either stay in their place with our history, or that we demolish them and lose that history. I’m not sure that needs to be true. The name of Robert E. Lee Park should be changed, but we shouldn’t forget that that park was once named in honor of Robert E. Lee. Similarly, we need to remember Baltimore’s complicated loyalty during the Civil War, and acknowledging the existence of these monuments is indisputable proof of that complexity.

I received the news of the tagging of Bolton Hill’s Spirit of the Confederacy monument with “Black Lives Matter” while working on this piece. It’s a good example of how public space facilitates the convergence of past and present, where we interpret the historical markers left by those who came before us with our present-day realities. And because it’s public space we’re talking about, we should all be open to collectively negotiating the symbols within them. 

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