The Weight of History

What Baltimore can teach us about the future of public monuments

Art East
What Baltimore can teach us about the future of public monuments. Pictured here: The base of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument splashed with red paint on August 14, two days before the City of Baltimore removed its Confederate monuments from public spaces. (Eli Pousson)
What Baltimore can teach us about the future of public monuments. Pictured here: The base of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument splashed with red paint on August 14, two days before the City of Baltimore removed its Confederate monuments from public spaces. (Eli Pousson)

With little fanfare, under the cover of night, the City of Baltimore took down four Confederate monuments last week. The removals may be read as a response to the violence in Charlottesville, but the city’s decision marks a decisive new chapter in public commemoration, one that goes much deeper than the nightly news. 

The monuments depicted Confederate soldiers, generals, (white) women of the South, and one Supreme Court justice best known for his role in the Dred Scott decision. The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1903) and the Confederate Women’s Monument (1917) were both put up by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, while the Lee-Jackson Monument was erected in 1948 by the Baltimore Municipal Arts Society with $100,000 from a 1928 bequest by local business executive J. Harry Ferguson. The statue of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney was given to Baltimore in 1887 by William T. Walters, who commissioned a copy of an 1871 statue of Taney on the Maryland State House grounds.

Since last Wednesday, all four bronze monuments have been sitting in an city storage yard under cover of blue plastic tarps. For the past week, curious neighbors, activists, and news crews have toured the four empty stone plinths full of questions about the past and the future. How did these monuments end up here? How did the monuments affect Baltimore while they stood, and what do we do now that they’re gone?



It might seem odd to see Confederate monuments in Baltimore when Maryland remained part of the Union throughout the Civil War. Thousands of Marylanders fought for the Confederacy but thousands more fought for the Union, including over 8,700 black men in six Maryland regiments of U.S. Colored Troops. But slavery was still legal in Maryland until nearly the end of the war, when the state passed a new constitution in 1864. Former Confederates and their allies quickly returned to political power. Maryland did not ratify the 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment to the Constitution (what one historian called his favorite Civil War era monuments) until well after they came into effect: 1959 (for the 14th) and 1973 (for the 15th).

On May 19, 1870, over 20,000 people—most of them black Baltimoreans—gathered to celebrate the passage of the 15th Amendment granting black men the right to vote. The parade route included Mount Vernon Place where the Taney Monument was erected in 1887. (Image via the Library of Congress)

On May 19, 1870, over 20,000 people—most of them black Baltimoreans—gathered to celebrate the passage of the 15th Amendment granting black men the right to vote. The parade route included Mount Vernon Place where the Taney Monument was erected in 1887. (Image via the Library of Congress)

Across the country, efforts to remember the Civil War first appeared in cemeteries. Between 1865 and 1885, 90 percent of Confederate monuments contained some form of funerary design and a majority (70 percent) stood in cemeteries. (Confederate monuments still stand in southwest Baltimore’s Loudon Park Cemetery. That all changed after the end of Reconstruction.

When the federal government retreated from protecting black voters from the growing threat of violence by white neighbors in the 1870s, most monuments were stripped of their funereal designs and semi-public settings and moved decisively into the town square. Between 1885 and 1899, only 40 percent 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 percent of all Confederate monuments built before World War I. Of those, only 25 percent used funerary design and 85 percent were located in public areas.

This dramatic move—from private sites of mourning to public sites of celebration and honor—reflects the success of a ”reconciliationist” memory of the Civil War that focused on the bravery of soldiers and generals while avoiding any discussion of slavery or the unfinished work of emancipation. In the last chapter of Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois noted the role historians at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore had played in rewriting the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction around themes of “endless sympathy with the white south” and “ridicule, contempt or silence for the Negro.” In his landmark 2001 book, Race and Reunion, historian David Blight observed that “[a] segregated society, demanded a segregated historical memory.” 

The white supremacist politics that accompanied the rise of “Lost Cause” memory make it impossible to avoid comparing monuments to other strategies designed to exclude African Americans from urban space. During the same period white Baltimoreans put up Confederate monuments, the city enacted the nation’s first racial segregation ordinance in 1910 and, in the wake of the ordinance’s legal defeat, white residents created a patchwork of racially restrictive housing covenants. The Confederate Women’s Monument was located in Bishop’s Square Park near the southern entrance to Guilford, an exclusive suburban enclave established in 1913 and developed by a company that pioneered the use of racially restrictive covenants.

Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, c. 1910. (Image via the Library of Congress)

Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, c. 1910. (Image via the Library of Congress)

It is important to remember, however, that the context for Baltimore’s Confederate monuments (and the new empty plinths) is more than just the social history of racism and the “Lost Cause.” Whether they stand in a private cemetery or on a public street, the meanings of monuments are shaped by the surrounding physical context. All of Baltimore’s monuments have seen radical changes over the decades including the physical relocation, the demolition of surrounding buildings, and the reconfiguration of street grids. The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument once sat in the center of Mount Royal Avenue, flanked on both sides by Victorian rowhouses, until the rowhouses were cleared away and the road dramatically widened for the construction of I-83. In 1959, construction of ramps for I-83 forced the Union Soldiers and Sailors Monument to move to the southeastern corner of Wyman Park Dell. The new site may even have been selected to provide “balance” to the Lee-Jackson Monument located on opposite side of the park. The map below depicts the present-day location of two of the four monuments in Baltimore:

The way people use the urban landscapes surrounding the monuments has also evolved. When Baltimore’s Confederate monuments were built, the people who sought permission for their installation, raised money for their design and production, and planned the dedication ceremonies often lived nearby. They wanted their neighbors to see the structures—whether their neighbors wanted to see them or not. In 1887, the statue of infamous Chief Justice Roger B. Taney was just a few hundred feet from the home of the statue’s donor, William T. Walters at 5 West Mount Vernon Place—one of the the dozens of large townhouses facing on the four squares that surround the Washington Monument. But, by 1890, the neighbors also included over 11,000 African Americans living in the city’s 11th Ward, which began just one block west of the park.

North park of Mount Vernon Place showing the Taney Monument and the Howard Monument, c. 1904. (Image via the Library of Congress)

North park of Mount Vernon Place showing the Taney Monument and the Howard Monument, c. 1904. (Image via the Library of Congress)

Around the turn of the century, hundreds of Confederate veterans gathered around Mount Vernon Place to march up to Mount Royal Avenue for the dedication of the Confederate Soldiers Monument. Residents on or near the route included the former home of Confederate General Lawrason Riggs (where his widow flew a Confederate flag from the window as the parade went past) and Confederate officer McHenry Howard who spoke at the ceremony.

But less than 100 years later, the center of Confederate memory had moved to the suburbs. The Baltimore chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans was re-established there in 1981, and a city that once welcomed celebrations of Confederate memory slowly began to turn against it. Since the 1950s, Confederate groups had organized an annual celebration for Robert E. Lee’s birthday at the Lee-Jackson Monument. Celebrating Lee’s birthday on the third Monday in January took on a new meaning after the federal government adopted Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday in the 1980s. In 2008, Johns Hopkins refused to rent the group the meeting hall they had used for years. Four years later, members of the Homewood Quaker Meeting House, located just a five-minute walk from the statue, began organizing a silent vigil calling on the group to “Change the Date.” In June 2015, protestors used the Lee-Jackson Monument as the backdrop for a press conference calling on then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to remove Baltimore’s Confederate Monuments and the Taney statue.

Community members gathered there again on Sunday, August 13, a day after activist Heather Heyer’s death, for a rally and march in solidarity with Charlottesville. The speakers called on Mayor Catherine Pugh to take down the city’s Confederate monuments. When activist group Baltimore BLOC called for direct action to take down the Lee-Jackson Monument (#DoItLikeDurham), the city responded quickly. A little over twelve hours later, all four monuments had been taken down.

What monuments or statues best represent the city today is still to be determined, but these four monuments will surely be remembered long after they were taken down. As some Baltimore’s own 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.”

The base of the Taney monument on August 18. (Eli Pousson)

The base of the Taney monument on August 18. (Eli Pousson)

Eli Pousson is the director of preservation & outreach at Baltimore Heritage where his work includes the Explore Baltimore Heritage website and app, as well as ongoing research about Baltimore’s civil rights heritage. Pousson wrote this piece as an individual and not on behalf of Baltimore Heritage.

Related Stories