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What to Do About Baltimore's Confederate Monuments

The city is making this a more complicated ordeal than it needs to be.

Patrick Semansky/AP

Maryland had three times as many Union soldiers in the Civil War than it had Confederate soldiers, and half of those Union military units were formed in Baltimore. Yet, today, there are three Confederate monuments in Baltimore and just one Union monument in the city. That seems at least mathematically suspect. Many in the heavily African-American city have been frustrated that there are Confederate monuments on public display at all—a sentiment punctuated by the “Black Lives Matter” tag that was spray-painted across one of the monuments during the summer of 2015.  

That summer, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appointed a commission to investigate what should be done about the public display of the controversial Confederate monuments in the city. That commission just returned their verdict to the mayor on Wednesday. Of the four monuments under review (three Confederate ones and one dedicated to Roger Brooke Taney, the former Supreme Court Chief Justice who ruled on the infamous Dred Scott case), the commission recommended that the city keep two and drop two.

The two monuments the commission wants Baltimore to keep are the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument and the Confederate Women’s Monument. Those two are to remain, but with “very serious re-contextualization,” meaning a bunch of signage around the monuments that will acknowledge their controversial nature but also explain their importance.

The two recommended for removal are monuments dedicated to Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and to Chief Justice Taney. The commission ruled that those memorials should be handed over to the National Park Service for display at the Chancellorsville Battlefield in Virginia.

The decision of what will actually happen to the monuments, however, now rests with Mayor Rawlings-Blake, who has fewer than three months left in office. But the mayor has yet commit to a decision on the matter. In Rawlings-Blake’s letter accompanying the commission’s report, she wrote:

For Baltimore, Confederate sympathies and memory is part of our history that extends well beyond the years of the Civil War. Many citizens have shared that certain public monuments do not accurately represent Baltimore’s history and heritage and questioned the messages that these monuments represent to citizens today. I believe it is important for us to take a thoughtful and reasoned approach to considering the future of these monuments.

This measured, noncommittal approach stands in stark contrast to that of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who, facing frustration from city residents about publicly displayed Confederate monuments, has been unequivocal about bringing them down. Of course, those Confederate monuments are still standing in New Orleans, held up by lawsuits from organizations wishing to keep them in place.

Perhaps it’s this kind of time- and money-consuming litigation that Rawlings-Blake is trying to avoid. But unlike New Orleans, Baltimore is a mostly black-and-blue (as in Democrat) city in a mostly blue state—even its Republican governor stopped the state from issuing Confederate flag license plates. The real problem with expediting the removal of these monuments is that even the mayor must answer to a higher authority: The Maryland Historical Trust. This is the state body that the city deeded power over the monuments to, and none of them can be removed without the explicit permission of the trust’s director.

The fact that the commission voted to retain two Confederate monuments might also be a reflection of its members, the majority of which are from the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation—the kind of organization that doesn’t like to tear anything down.

Still, one would think that removing public symbols devoted to an army that glorified and defended slavery would be a slam-dunk issue. However, Baltimore’s political and preservationist leaders don’t think the Civil War was that simple. The commission’s report states that its members studied the “artistic, historical, and political” value of the monuments and came away with “a nuanced understanding of these complex pieces.”

But further reading of the report doesn’t suggest anything complex about the issue. It reads:

These monuments were forged by the efforts of several organizations that helped create and spread a movement known as the Lost Cause, a movement that argued for and perpetuated a pro-Confederate historical interpretation of the events and reasons that led to the Civil War. This historical interpretation also included a romanticized and distorted view of slavery as a benign institution run by benevolent masters.

A century of professional historical research—which asked new questions, reviewed previously known historical resources and scrutinized new primary sources—has overwhelmingly refuted the primary assumptions of the Lost Cause. Moreover, significant historical research about the Lost Cause Movement reveals its white supremacist elements that helped to perpetuate Jim Crow, racial segregation and violence against African Americans.

That sounds like a pretty straightforward and accurate understanding of what these monuments signify. Especially considering that some of them were built during the same era that Baltimore became the flagship for residential segregation ordinances in order to contain African Americans.

The report actually takes a deep dive into all of the pro-Confederate forces that converged in Baltimore to continue the perpetuation of the white supremacist agenda. Two magazines that led the spread of Lost Cause propaganda in the late 19th century—The Southern Review and The New Eclectic (later called Southern Magazine)—were both published out of Baltimore.

The report also details the histories of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who raised the money to build many of these monuments, in Baltimore and across the South, and who have supplied education materials about the South to Baltimore City schools.

In 1880, Baltimore Mayor Ferdinand C. Latrobe voted against installing Confederate monuments in the city, saying (as quoted in the commission’s report):

“The public highways and squares of the city are 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.”

And then, the United Daughters of the Confederacy went and started building them anyway, some 20 years later.

The visibility of these Confederate memorials in Baltimore makes even less sense given all that has been exposed in the city following the police killing of Freddie Gray. Just last month, a city attorney was fired after the Southern Poverty Law Center exposed their connection to white nationalist organizations.

The commissioners wrote that their report “documents a civil discussion about an important and painful topic, and provides a model for how local governments can engage with the public to discuss similarly painful subjects.”

Those subjects were about a war that was anything but civil, over the even more vulgar cause of enslaving African Americans—the legacy of which black Americans continue to suffer from, particularly in Baltimore. This is not a complicated issue: Just take the bullshit down.

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