Eli Pousson is the director of preservation and outreach at Baltimore Heritage, where his work includes the Explore Baltimore Heritage website and app and ongoing research about Baltimore's Civil Rights Heritage.
How a preservationist looks at Baltimore’s ongoing battle over its public memorials.
The Key Monument in Baltimore, a bronze figure of Francis Scott Key standing in a marble boat, has stood in the city’s Eutaw Place neighborhood since 1911. At 6:30 a.m. last Wednesday, workers from the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks discovered it had been splattered in bright red paint. Spray painted on the side of the marble column next to Key were the words “Racist Anthem.”
The incident was part of a renewed wave of attention involving Baltimore’s public statues. It came a little over a month after Mayor Catherine Pugh took down four Confederate monuments in the early morning hours of August 16. Since then, protesters have also targeted a 225-year-old monument to Christopher Columbus in northeast Baltimore: a group of people smashed a sledgehammer into the stone panel at the base of the brick obelisk. The damage was first revealed in a YouTube video arguing that “tearing down monuments” is linked to “tearing down systems” that maintain white supremacy.
The protest against Francis Scott Key was similarly pointed. Graffiti left behind on the sidewalk in front of the statue accurately labeled Key a “slave owner” and quoted lesser-known lines from Key’s famous poem—from the verse that condemned “hirelings and slaves,” a reference to the company of black soldiers who escaped from bondage in Virginia and Maryland and joined the British army to fight against the nation that had held them captive. The date for the spray-paint protest was carefully chosen: It took place on Defender’s Day, exactly 203 years after the Battle of Baltimore.
Some called it vandalism; others, nonviolent direct action. As a local historian and preservationist, I see the debate as part of the long, and often contentious, public conversation over the role of these memorials in the city. I want to know what all my neighbors think about these monuments—both the people who are holding the paint cans and the conservators who now have to worry about the damage they left behind.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that Baltimore, nicknamed the Monumental City in the 1820s, and home to the first designed monument to George Washington, is among the nation’s most visible sites of conflict over public memory. The damage to the Key and Columbus monuments illustrates a deep history of conflict over civic and national identity that many towns and cities are wrestling with today.
Don’t let anyone tell you that these monuments have always been uncritically revered: Even a brief look at their history dispels the idea that they’ve never been subject to controversy or mistreatment in the past. The Columbus Monument, a stone obelisk erected by a local French consul on his private estate in 1792, is the oldest in the nation. But, it’s been half-forgotten more than once. In the 1880s, a local historian felt compelled to debunk a popular rumor that the obelisk memorialized a horse named “Columbus” instead of the man. Before the city moved the monument to the present location in 1963, it sat in the corner of a Sears parking lot.
The Francis Scott Key memorial has enjoyed a similarly mixed reception. Just weeks after its May 1911 dedication, the Baltimore Sun published a letter from “A Plain Patriot” who saw a crowd of visitors at the monument and was “shocked at the utter lack of respect by many boys (both colored and white)” throwing rocks at goldfish in the fountain and climbing up into the marble boat next to the bronze figure of Key to pull on the oar. In August 1942, as World War II sparked scrap metal drives across the country, the Sun invited local artists to nominate sculptures they’d like see recycled for the war effort. “Scrap the Francis Scott Key Monument on Eutaw Place,” said Lithuanian-American sculptor Louis Rosenthal. “I could suggest some other monuments in Baltimore, but I won’t... the Key Monument on Eutaw Place is the worst.” Rosenthal cited the fact that “the drapery of the flag is too heavy” and noted that, if the bronze was melted down into bullets, “there is enough … to kill several hundred thousand Japs.”
Key survived that fate, but neglect took a toll on the monument. In the mid-1990s residents organized a four-year fundraising campaign that won support from the federal Save America’s Treasures grant program. First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke at a ceremony when the grant award was announced in 1998 ceremony. Art conservator Steven Tatti said that, before he went to work on the $125,000 restoration, the fountain reminded him of a “public urinal.” Tatti and a team of conservators spent months hauling garbage and rubble out of the fountain, cleaning the marble and bronze, and applying new gold leaf to the decorative plaques at the base.
In recent weeks Baltimore activists tweeted that Columbus should be destroyed alongside the city’s Confederate monuments; they called for the removal of Key along with other lesser-known statues. But the ongoing expansion of the monument debate—and the physical attacks on statues unrelated to the Confederacy—have sharpened the controversy. Some foes of Confederate monuments use patriotic language in their arguments against those statues, calling them “traitor monuments” and “anti-American.” But this strategy doesn’t work in the same way with Columbus and Key; these statues don’t celebrate rebels, but instead recall founding myths of nationhood. Indeed, people who are fighting to take down these monuments acknowledge their significance as symbols of American identity—but look past the mythology of discovery and patriotic poetry to see symbols supporting the genocide of indigenous people and the uncritical celebration of slaveholders.
Even who might be sympathetic to an activist critique of Key and Columbus may be uncomfortable with what they see as a destructive and costly act. They worry that the perception of vandalism as an illegitimate, anti-democratic action might alienate potential allies who would support a legal, civil protest. Unlike the mass-produced Confederate soldiers standing in town squares across the South, the Columbus monument was a unique artifact valued for age and rarity. Conservation budgets for the public artworks are limited, and a portion of those funds must now go to the careful removal of paint from the stone and bronze, and gold leaf on the Key Monument. (One person offended by the damage to the Key Monument picked up a pressure washer at the end of last week and inadvertently caused even more damage for local art conservators to worry over.) The conflict over the meaning of the monuments is real, but so are the maintenance problems.
Whether you treasure, tolerate, or abhor these monuments, we can’t ignore the questions they provoke. How do we decide what people and what ideas should be remembered? If you acknowledge the harm wrought by Columbus’ actions or Key’s slaveholding, what meaning do these monuments hold today? Are monuments to slaveholders and advocates of white supremacy fundamentally incompatible with an inclusive democratic society where black and indigenous lives matter? Polls have found that a majority of Americans support keeping Confederate monuments in public spaces, while a substantial minority want to see them removed. Racial and political party lines defined the split. Perhaps, more than anything else, these findings and recent events for Baltimore’s monuments show how national identity in a democracy is always a negotiation. Public memory is often born out of conflict and disagreement.
Key’s account of the Battle of Baltimore, for example, may be the best known, but it isn’t the only one. According to an account published in the Emancipator and Free American, an anti-slavery newspaper of the pre-Civil War era, one black sailor from Baltimore, a veteran of the Battle of North Point, later recalled the fight before and after the war:
There we stood intermingled, white and coloured, manning the same gun, and shot down indiscriminately; the officers exhorted us to fight bravely in the defence of our country; and then after the war was over they tried to get us to go to Africa, and told us that was our country; but I will not go. I feel that this is my country and that I shall never go out of it alive.
The defaced Key Monument doesn’t tell that part of the story, but others in town do. The Negro Soldier Monument, a 1971 work by black sculptor James E. Lewis, is dedicated to black veterans of all American wars. It stands in front of Baltimore’s City Hall and reminds us that, in a democracy, new monuments may go up and old monuments may come down.
“Democracy has no monuments,” John Quincy Adams wrote in his memoirs. “It strikes no medals. It bears the head of no man, on a coin.” This has not turned out to be the case, clearly. But, perhaps, we can read Adams’s words as an invitation to for everyone to join the debate of reimagining our monuments for a more democratic future.