The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black artist’s Thurgood Marshall replaces portrait of a likely enslaver

For 300 years, Maryland’s seat of power has featured art of White men. The images are changing.

Baltimore artist Ernest Shaw, right, and Sen. William C. Smith Jr. unveil a portrait of Thurgood Marshall during a ceremony at the Miller Senate Office Building in Annapolis, Md. on Thursday. (Michael Robinson Chávez/The Washington Post)
6 min

The omission did not escape Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery).

There were few portraits of Black historical figures on the walls of the Maryland Senate building in Annapolis. And yet for years Smith passed a depiction of Cecilus Calvert, who Maryland historians say was likely an enslaver, every time he walked into the room where lawmakers hear bills about criminal justice.

“A lot of people say it’s not a big deal — symbols won’t educate the uneducated or put food on the table or shelter the unsheltered — but we all know the symbols matter a lot because they make public spaces like this more open and welcoming for everyone,” said Smith, the first Black person to chair the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

About 18 months ago, Smith launched a project that would see Calvert come down. And on Thursday, he joined Ernest Shaw Jr., an artist and teacher from West Baltimore, to unveil in its place a painting of a young Thurgood Marshall, also born in Baltimore.

Shaw captured Marshall, a civil rights champion and, later, the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice, after Marshall had won a Court of Appeals case that ultimately led to the desegregation of the University of Maryland Law School.

“Just think about how impactful a portrait like this will be for someone that has never seen themselves reflected on the walls of the halls of power,” Smith said during the ceremony. “A portrait of a young attorney in the midst of his fight for civil rights will serve as a symbol of hope for all who would come to the committee in search of justice.”

The portrait also symbolizes a sea change occurring in Maryland. After centuries of White men holding the state’s most powerful positions in Annapolis, Black people, immigrants, and White women will soon move the levers of power in state government.

Gov.-elect Wes Moore, who will be the first Black man to serve as governor of Maryland, takes office later this month. He will join Attorney General Anthony G. Brown, state Treasurer Dereck Davis, and House Speaker Adrienne Jones — all of whom are Black — and Brooke Lierman, who will be the first woman to serve as the state’s comptroller. Incoming Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller will be the first immigrant to hold that post, having come to the United States from India as a child.

“Do you know there will be no White men on the Board of Public Works?” asked Sen. Charles Sydnor (D-Baltimore) after the ceremony, almost incredulously, noting that the three-panel board that approves state contracts will consist of a White woman and two Black men. “With Brooke’s win, the glass ceiling broke. With Adrienne, the glass ceiling broke. It’s pretty amazing.”

In Md., Black people poised to occupy four critical positions of power

In the past decade, as Maryland has become one of the most diverse states in the country, officials are increasingly taking steps to ensure that the State House complex grounds — and its walls — not only reflect the shift but that they also appropriately reflect Black people’s contribution to its history.

Elaine Rice Bachmann, the Maryland state archivist, said Thursday that for nearly 300 years, the only people represented on state government walls were White men. As the electorate has changed and as lawmakers and the public make requests the state collection has evolved.

She said there are now portraits of Mary Risteau, the first woman elected to the Maryland legislature, Verda Welcome, the first Black woman, Chief Judge Robert Bell, the first Black person to serve as the chief justice in Maryland and Richard Dixon, the first Black treasurer.

“But despite that progress,” she said, “it remains important to reach back into history and represent Maryland, who were not elected and not acknowledged in their own time.”

Maryland’s demographic shift is largely driven by growing Asian and Latino populations who along with Native Americans are still underrepresented in State House hallways and on its walls.

After the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville six years ago, the statue of former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision, ruling that Black people were not U.S. citizens and had no rights other than those that White people gave them, was removed from the Maryland State House grounds.

In 2019, Jones (D-Baltimore) pushed to have a plaque that sympathizes with the Confederacy removed from the State House rotunda. A year later, after the national racial reckoning, the plaque, which was installed at the height of the civil rights movement, was taken down.

The portrait that was raised on Thursday was the second one created by Shaw, who attended Baltimore City public schools, Baltimore School of the Arts, Morgan State University, and Howard University and hails from the same neighborhood as Marshall.

The first iteration of the painting was rejected by a committee to commission an artist for the project, with some considering it too “aggressive.” Smith said there was some concern that Marshall’s eyes were not fully open and that it included “a slightly different hand gesture.”

After some feedback, Shaw illustrated a younger Marshall, before he won the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. The painting, which was paid for through donations from 30 individuals and companies, was based on a photo taken by the Afro newspaper after his 1936 Court of Appeals victory.

“We weren’t trying to tamp down or change who he was,” Smith said. “There were many sides of him. This shows him young, a little hungry. His suit doesn’t fit well. He’s on the rise at that point of his life.”

The painting is also not the first time a portrait of a Black historical figure has replaced the portrait of a White one.

Six years ago a group of Black elementary students from Baltimore City who toured the historic Statehouse and Senate complex in Annapolis wrote then-Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore) thank you letters about their visit.

Ferguson said the letters taught him a lesson that he won’t soon forget.

The students said that they “looked everywhere around us, we didn’t see anyone that looked like us.”

So three years ago, as one of his first official acts as Senate president, Ferguson unveiled a portrait of Verda Freeman Welcome that now hangs in the back of the Senate chamber.

Welcome, a teacher and civil rights pioneer, was the first Black woman in the country elected to the state Senate. Her picture replaced a 115-year-old painting of a former governor.

“As a White male, the privilege that I had of walking around this complex and not looking and noticing is something that really struck me — that I hadn’t noticed,” Ferguson said Thursday night. “I started to wander the halls and walk through the State House, it was so abundantly clear that we weren’t telling every Marylander’s story.”