David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
For a city dogged by violence and unrest, this was a big deal.
Early this morning, a small crowd of joggers stood at the polished granite base of a statue that wasn’t there, a monument to the women of the Confederacy.
It had been in the middle of a small park across from Johns Hopkins University since 1916. Last night a crew of contractors dispatched by the city pulled it up and trucked it away, along with two other Jim Crow-era memorials and a statue of Roger B. Taney, the Maryland-born Chief Justice who authored the 1857 Dred Scott decision. The elaborate operation went off without a hitch overnight. Most Baltimoreans woke up to the news that a long-simmering controversy over the racially inflammatory artifacts was simply over.
The joggers were greeted by a Baltimore Sun reporter, who’d been dispatched before dawn. The mood was cautiously jubilant. They snapped photos of each other. “It’s a small victory,” one said. “But let freedom ring.”
Maryland may have been a Union state, but the Civil War allegiances of Baltimore citizens teetered between North and South. The city has multiple Confederate monuments, thanks to the efforts of monied 19th and 20th century leaders with Southern sympathies. (Here’s a terrifically detailed timeline, from local preservationist Eli Pousson, that assembles the complete saga of how they got here.) After years of debate and deliberation among city leaders, preservationists, historians, and activists about what to do with the city’s trove of CSA-themed statuary, the move by Mayor Catherine Pugh to remove all four of them at once overnight offered a sudden and unambiguous resolution.
The operation began just before midnight and was over before the sun came up. The mayor and several journalists looked on as a team of workers, surrounded by police, used a crane to wrest the largest of the monuments—twin equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that have stood in Wyman Park, steps from the Baltimore Museum of Art, since 1948—from their base at about 3 a.m.
Baltimore mayor Cathy Pugh steps out of SUV to watch as crane prepares to lift Confederate monument in dead of night. pic.twitter.com/AN6vQRrFRt— Alec MacGillis (@AlecMacGillis) August 16, 2017
The Lee-Jackson memorial had been squarely in the crosshairs of local activists for many years. Back in September, a commission recommended moving two of the four controversial monuments, and Mayor Pugh pledged on Monday to remove all CSA-themed monuments. After a debate that night, the City Council upped the ante, passing a resolution in favor of total CSA statue “deconstruction.”
After a crowd in Durham, North Carolina, successfully toppled a statue on Monday, the activist collective Baltimore Bloc announced on Twitter yesterday that they planned on marshaling a crowd to take matters into their own hands at 6 p.m. Wednesday evening. But the city beat them to the punch. By morning, the two generals and their horses were gone, and a knot of TV news teams surrounded the graffiti-decorated base. Nearby, an anti-racist statue called Mother Light raised a defiant fist at the vacant plinth.
It’s not yet clear how Baltimore’s skillfully executed night raid on the Lost Cause fits into the larger and still-unfolding national crisis triggered by the Charlottesville violence and President Trump’s unsettling embrace of white nationalism. For many, the only question here is: What took so long? This is a majority-African-American city in a nominally Union state. Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, recently released a statement supporting the removal of a statue of Justice Taney statue from the State House grounds in Annapolis. Politically, Pugh’s preemptive strike was a no-brainer. The fate of memorials in cities and towns in Southern states is likely to be resolved more contentiously.
But, locally, this is a big deal, and not only because it offered violence-weary Baltimoreans a rare opportunity to wake up to some good news.
The way the removal was executed—swiftly, peacefully, authoritatively, and with all the necessary permits—served as a desperately needed demonstration that the civic compact was not hopelessly broken. As the Baltimore City Paper’s Brandon Soderberg reported this morning, congenial police officers didn’t interfere with onlookers. The Mayor, the City Council, and most of the citizens were, for once, on the same page. A plan was made, professionals did their jobs, and no one got hurt. For a city that has so often served as a symbol of urban dysfunction, this was an effective display of municipal competence, proof that we are, despite everything, a governable community.
Baltimore defied its troubled history here in another way, too. Statue-removal is rare in a city more famous for building them. The town’s 1830s nickname, “The Monumental City,” springs from the local enthusiasm for memorial-making. The smoke of battle around Fort McHenry had barely cleared before Baltimoreans started raising money to build a privately funded War of 1812 battle monument. In 1815, Baltimore began constructing its 178-foot-high Washington Monument, the nation’s first major tribute to honor George Washington. More recently, the city has erected statues of Justice Thurgood Marshall, wacky former mayor William Donald Schaefer, Babe Ruth, and native son Frank Zappa. Making monuments is something Baltimore does really well. And today, we have four new places to put them.