Testimony for the Special Commission to Review Baltimore’s Public Confederate Monuments

12 minute read


Baltimore Heritage is pleased to support the Mayor and the members of the Commission in your work reviewing Baltimore’s public Confederate monuments.

We appreciate the opportunity today to share some highlights from our research on the monuments and their context in the city’s history; research that we hope can inform your discussion in the months ahead. We also hope to inform members of the public concerned about these monuments and their meanings.

Our research has been driven by a series of questions: Who built the monuments and statues we are discussing today? Why did they choose to honor Confederate rebellion when Maryland remained part of the Union during the Civil War? What meaning did the monuments hold when they were first erected? What meaning do the monuments hold today—over 150 years after the end of the Civil War and 67 years since the Lee-Jackson monument was installed?

For answers, we can look back a moment in the late 19th and early 20th century, when popular publications, exhibitions, reunions, parades and memorials all worked together transform the story of the Confederacy from a slave-holders rebellion into a noble “Lost Cause” fought by brave and honorable men for a cause of state’s rights. In his book Memory in Black and White, anthropologist Paul Shackel described the rise of this “Lost Cause” myth-making and a concerted effort to exclude African Americans from the “national consciousness,” writing:

An integrated collective memory became unacceptable to the majority of white Americans. They interpreted the war as a test of a generation’s valor and loyalty toward a cause. The Lost Cause mythology argued that Confederate were never defeated but rather were overwhelmed by numbers and betrayed by some key generals.

With this in mind, we started our search for answers not just looking to find the story of how the monuments were built but understand the role these monuments played in a broader story of Confederate memory, race and politics. Historian David Blight suggested in 1989 that in this same way:

Historical memory… was not merely an entity altered by the passage of time; it was the prize in a struggle between rival versions of the past, a question of will, of power, of persuasion.

In Maryland and many Southern states, the success of this transformation in historical memory (what journalist Jamelle Bouie has called a “propaganda coup, the end point of 150 years of myth-making”) continues to shape the popular and political reception of both the Confederate monuments and even this commission. I’d like to begin my presentation by describing the character of this struggle as it focused on the monuments. I’ll explain how, through the idea of the Lost Cause, the monuments are closely linked to a history of racism in Baltimore. I’ll continue to explain how the monuments are not just controversial today but controversial in their own time. The Lost Cause did not win the struggle over the memory of the Civil War without a fight and clearly that fight continues today.

It may not surprise anyone to hear that the Confederate monument movement started in cemeteries. Between 1865 and 1885, 90% of Confederate monuments contained some form of funerary design; and a majority (70%) stood in cemeteries. However, after the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, and the federal retreat from protecting black voters from the growing threat of violence by white neighbors, circumstances began to change. Between 1885 and 1899 only 40% of new monuments used funerary designs, and towns increasingly chose to locate monuments in public places (like streets and courthouse lawns). From 1900 to 1912, the nation witnessed the erection of 60% of all Confederate monuments built before WWI. Of those, only 25% used funerary design and 85% located in public areas.

In Baltimore, monuments moved from Confederate Hill in Loudon Park Cemetery in the 1870s to an unsuccessful proposal to place a Confederate monument on Eutaw Place in 1880. Five years later, William Walters, who had fled Baltimore during the Civil War, supported the erection of a monument to Roger B. Taney.

As some have observed, Taney never served in the Confederate army or participated in the Confederate government and stayed in his position as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court up until his death on October 12, 1864. Despite this, his personal sympathy and direct support for the Confederacy is clear. During the Civil War, Roger B. Taney had expressed his pride in a son-in-law for his service in the Confederate army and told a young Confederate Army recruit that they were performing a patriotic service like that of the recruit’s grandfather during the American Revolution. Taney also opposed every Union war measure that came before the Supreme Court. Some of this opposition may have been based in legal principle but his goal clearly included obstruction of the war effort. In Maryland, Taney also served as a circuit court judge and always fell “ill” just in time to prevent any trial for treason or sabotage from moving forward.

Undeterred, Baltimoreans donated and attended Confederate monument celebrations in towns and battlefield sites in Virginia. Such celebrations not only spoke to their certainty that the South was the innocent victim of overwhelming Union forces and blundering generals but also clearly articulated their opposition to black freedom.

Among the prominent local leaders for Confederate veterans, was former Confederate General Bradley T. Johnson (a native of Frederick) who, in 1896, when he spoke at the spoke at the dedication of the Museum of the Confederacy (the former home of Jefferson Davis) in Richmond, Virginia he shared his view that:

“the greatest crime of the century was the emancipation of the Negro.”

In Maryland, it is impossible to separate the racism present in the celebration of Confederate Memory from the politics of the state Democratic party which moved around the exact same time to make the disenfranchisement of black voters a central issue for their party. The Afro newspaper quoted Alexander H. Robinson, a “citizen of Baltimore” at a September 1898 convention announcing:

“It is our duty to subordinate every factional issue, every personal ambition, every distracting issue in party affairs to the one supreme issue of erasing from the fair brow of our city and state the ignominious brand of negro supremacy, and placing the affairs of the city in the hands of the WHITE MAN, where the brutal and swaggering negro shall no longer be a factor in our political affairs.”

The Afro continued to share how Democratic politicians rallied in Baltimore again in 1899, declaring “This is a white man’s city.” The paper reflected:

“Thus, the Southern confederacy having been overturned and suppressed, the principle upon which it was founded, is vigorously and energetically set forth by the Democratic party, who would by an indirect method accomplish that which the demise of the Confederacy rendered impossible.The Confederacy is dead but its spirit still lives, and the negro is to attain his “natural and normal condition” by means of the democratic party.”

Just four years later, Confederate veterans, Democratic politicians and local residents gathered on on Mount Royal Avenue for the celebratory dedication of the “Spirit of the Confederacy.” The day’s entertainment included a performance of “Maryland, My Maryland” and children waved Confederate flags. Democratic Mayor Thomas G. Hayes, himself a Confederate veteran and had won his office with the tide of anti-black politics in 1899, praised Lee and Jackson quoting a popular saying that:

“No Cause could be considered lost which had around it the halo of the names, lives and deeds of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.”

Forced to miss the dedication due to illness, Confederate General Bradley Johnson would have, in the words of one historian “heartily approved the mayor’s speech.”

Men like Hayes and Bradley did not speak for everyone. Some people in Baltimore opposed the creation of these monuments, criticized the racism within the Confederate memorial agenda. While examples of direct responses to the early monuments are hard to find, it is clear that black activists saw the symbols of Confederate memory as a rallying point for opposition.

In 1880, scores of Baltimore’s Union veterans petitioned against a proposal to locate a Confederate monument on Eutaw Place. Even some Confederate veterans stood up in opposition, among them Charles T. Crane who wrote to the Baltimore Sun stating:

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 to a great number of the people of the United States.

Despite a strong vote of approval from the Baltimore City Council, the city’s Mayor Ferdinand C. Latrobe returned the resolution “without his approval,” noting:

The public highways and squares of the city are the common property of all, and we who are temporarily entrusted with their control, whatever our personal opinions may be, are not, in my judgment, justified in dedicating any portion of them to a purpose which would be in direct opposition to the sensibilities and wishes of large numbers of citizens.”

As Confederate veterans continued to try to diminish the importance of slavery to the Civil War, Baltimore’s native son Frederick Douglass remarked in 1884:

It is not well to forget the past. Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is… the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future.

In a speech in Washington, DC delivered in 1889, Douglass likely spoke for many African Americans when he noted:

Well the nation may forget, it may shut its eyes to the past, and frown upon any who may do otherwise, but the colored people of this country are bound to keep the past in lively memory till justice shall be done them.

In 1887, the Sun reported on the a new statue of Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney on Mount Vernon Place with a call for unity:

Fierce disputes, historical in their results, raged about the Dred Scott decision. But the issues of that period of conflict are now dead, and all our people respect the memory of the brave, pure and learned judge whose career did so much honor to his native State.”

However, for Baltimore’s thousands of black residents, Taney’s memory epitomized judicial injustice for African Americans. The Afro (with offices then located six blocks south of the Mount Vernon Place on St. Paul Street) invoked Taney’s name often as a symbol of judicial injustice in the face of growing segregation and disenfranchisement in the early 1900s. On November 14, 1908, responding to a Supreme Court decision allowing private educational institutions to discriminate on the basis of race, the Afro-American wrote:

“True to its traditions the Supreme Court of the United States has rendered another decision and has struck another blow at the black man in the United States. […] Infamous Judge Taney, of the same count handed down a decision that the Negro had no rights the white man was bound to respect. There are some rights the Negro has that the white man is bound to respect, and there is no doubt but in the course of time he will be wise to the fact, in the instance as in the case of the decision of Taney, all is not lost that is in danger.”

Politics and memorials remained closely connected forty years later. On May 15, 1948, the Afro-American newspaper published a passionate editorial rebuking the city’s mayor and governor for participating in the dedication of the Lee-Jackson Monument on Wyman Park Drive a few days earlier, writing:

Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro of Baltimore said, “we can look for inspiration to the lives of Lee and Jackson to remind us to be resolute and determined in preserving our sacred institutions. The “sacred institution” which Lee and Jackson sought to wreck was this Federal union of ours. The “sacred institution” they sought to preserve was slavery. Actually both Lee and Jackson were an example of small town rebels who walked roughshod over humble people in an attempt to build a State on the foundation of slave labor. Hitler killed Jews. Lee and Jackson exploited colored people as animals and property. […] These traitors are today held up before us […] as characters to whom we can look for “inspiration”(?) This is pure drivel and tommyrot.

The continuing power of Lee and Jackson to rally support against African American freedom was vividly illustrated that October when Dixiecrat Presidential candidate Strom Thurmond made the statue a prominent feature of his campaign stop in Baltimore. Thurmond’s own car sported the “waving flag of the Southern Confederacy” on his drive around the city.


Note: This conclusion is in the process of being revised for submission to the public record for the Special Commission.

Monuments Nothing can ever change, change is bad. The meaning of these monuments has changed over time. Past debates over monuments and preservation illustrate the challenges of celebrating and sustaining black history.

The resolution of the debate over the Taney monument in Annapolis with the addition of a statue to Thurgood Marshall invites a another question. Baltimore has only one monument to the Union and only one depicting a black soldier. Why does this imbalance exist?

What followed the Maryland State Legislature’s move to approve funding for the erection of a Union Monument in Baltimore in 1906. In a series of letters to the Sun, an individual identified simply as “A Maryland Woman,” wrote that a Union monument would be a monument to:

“oppression and negro insolence, forcing contribulations [sic] from us, the descendants of Southern men and women, who had the courage of their convictions and never faltered in loyalty or love, but were supreme in both.”

In the 1950s, a site that was arguably one of the most significant memorials to the African American experience of the Civil War was destroyed.

In 1957, two members of the state legislature introduced a bill to remove the cemetery, arguing that it had become a health hazard. After the legislation passed, members of the city’s Law Department formed a dummy corporation and bought the cemetery, more than 30 acres of prime land, for $100.

Opposition to Black Soldier Monument

The Black Soldier Monument is a bronze uniformed figure standing before Baltimore City Hall, arms reaching out holding a banner and wreath. Inscribed on the banner is a list recording the years of every American war in which African-American men participated as soldiers from the American Revolution up through the Vietnam War. Baltimore artist James E. Lewis created this sculpture as a commission for an anonymous donor seeking to honor the legacy of the thousands of African-American soldiers from around the nation who served the country. Since the monument’s dedication in May 30, 1972, it has served as a powerful symbol of the significant role of the black soldier in the African-American struggle for freedom and justice - fighting for the nation overseas and fighting for their communities on the streets of Baltimore, Detroit, and New York.

Despite such troubling legacies, some observers have still wondered why are critics of these monuments only raising objections now? Is this a fleeting controversy, brining an inappropriate level of scrutiny to a forgotten era? I see substantial evidence to challenge this claim. Anyone who says that Baltimoreans have not fought over and against the city’s Confederate monuments has not been paying enough attention.