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Learning from our history

Fraser Smith Big

Twenty three years ago, in a less incendiary time, clever leaders in Maryland found an elegant solution to the issue of racism-tinged statuary.

Their success may have been more of a one-off than a model for dealing with this vexing issue. However limited, their solution shows how well-motivated, influential leaders can find a way when there seems to be no way.

Their work has been partially undone recently, but for a time it stood as a uniquely teachable moment.

An African-American member of the state’s General Assembly filed legislation in 1994 that would have led to removal of Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney’s brooding statue next to the State House in Annapolis.

Ever alert to what had become a perennial effort, state archivist and historian Edward C. Papenfuse called Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the House Appropriations Committee chairman and one of the most skillful politicians in the assembly.

If we start razing statuary, Papenfuse said, we will never get to the end of it. Some or all are offensive, but they offer opportunities to make important points in a tangible way. They’re  part of our history, a parent or teacher might say, but tearing them down won’t change that.

Rawlings, an African American, agreed. He had several reasons, including an example of the “all politics is local” adage: One of the raze-Taney advocates came from his Baltimore district.

No one was getting ahead of him on this one.

Nor, more recently, was anyone getting ahead of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, whose lightning, late-night take-down of four such monuments — including one of Taney in the city — won praise as a preemptive strike. Best not to have any demonstration sites like the  Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, she thought. Particularly not in a 65 percent black city.

A commission had studied the issue, made some recommendations — but no action had been taken.

The Taney statue came down in Annapolis. That it weathered demolition plans for so long is something of a wonder. As chief justice of the Supreme Court, he wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision, asserting that Scott had no standing and could not sue for his freedom. He was not a citizen. He “had no rights,” Taney wrote, “a white person is bound to respect.”

Would a statue honoring Taney be a perfect rallying point for white nationalist hooligans in today’s Trump-led permissive atmosphere? Pugh would take no chances. Taney’s robed image, in the shadow  of Baltimore’s Washington monument, came down at 3 a.m., Aug. 15.

Finding common ground

So here we come to the heart of Papenfuse’s proposal.

Maryland has had three Supreme Court justices: Taney, Samuel Chase and Thurgood Marshall. They could not have been more different as men, lawyers and judges. Marshall was Baltimore-born, poor and determined to lead a legal and social revolution through the courts.

Taney, a son of the South who grew up with slaves, thought law and society needed no fundamental overhaul. Marshall became chief author of Brown v. Board of Education, which sought equal justice in the nation’s schools and an end to the vestiges of Jim Crow segregation.

Speaking to each other across the span of more than a century, the two men had one point of agreement: Our salvation as a nation is the law.

In his conversation with Delegate Rawlings, archivist Papenfuse observed that few if any African Americans had been honored with a statue: no Frederick Douglass, no Harriet Tubman, no Clarence Mitchell, the NAACP lobbyist in Washington when most of the important civil rights laws were passed.

Why not address this statuary inequality?

A memorial for Douglass was erected in 2011 near the courthouse in Easton on the Eastern Shore not far from his birthplace. (A confederate statue honoring the Talbot County Boys has been in place there for decades.) The Park Service recently opened a Tubman visitors center near Easton. And the recently refurbished old House of Delegates Chamber in Annapolis will have tributes to Tubman and Douglass .

Papenfuse suggested an immediate and dramatic alternative to the Taney teardown. Why not build a monument to Marshall?

Why not indeed, said Rawlings. He and Papenfuse set about forming a Marshall statue commission, appropriating money for a sculptor and an architect to prepare a tableau with faux Supreme Court columns and sculptures of children at his feet.

The result seemed greater than the sum of its parts. Marshall’s commanding image to the west, Taney’s brooding figure to the east preside over the making of laws.

Change, as always, gives us an even more teachable moment.

(A previous version of this column mistakenly reported that Maryland had only two Supreme Court justices, leaving out Samuel Chase. The column also failed to report that the Frederick Douglass statue had been built in Easton; it was unveiled in 2011.)

C. Fraser Smith is a writer in Baltimore. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. He can be reached at

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