EASTON — For more than a century, the soldier has stood before the Talbot County Courthouse, a half-furled Confederate flag draped over his left shoulder like a cape.
Now, amid a national reexamination of America’s slaveholding and segregationist past — prompted by the shooting deaths of nine worshipers last year at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., allegedly by a white supremacist — the statue has reemerged as a flash point in this Eastern Shore county.
The county branch of the NAACP asked the Talbot County Council last year to take the monument down. A group called “Save the Talbot Boys” formed and gathered more than 1,200 signatures for a petition supporting the memorial, and the County Council voted to leave it where it is.
It didn’t end there. The NAACP and the ACLU challenged the decision process, which included a closed-door administrative meeting, to the state Open Meetings Compliance Board. The board ruled this month that the meeting should have been open to the public and had violated state law.
The council acknowledged the board’s ruling last week. But council President Corey W. Pack, who is black, said it wouldn’t change the decision.
“We were not going to remove the Talbot Boys statue,” said Pack, a Republican from Baltimore who has served on the County Council since 2007. “We felt it would be disrespectful to the family members of those Confederate relatives still alive in Talbot County.”
Richard Potter, president of the county NAACP branch, said a memorial to Confederate veterans doesn’t belong on the grounds of a public courthouse.
“That monument is commemorating individuals who wanted to keep a group of people, African American people especially, enslaved,” Potter said.
“The courthouse is supposed to be a place where we can all go seeking a just and fair trial, but then we have a statue that resembles hate to a certain group of people. How just of a trial can I get when I have my government officials agreeing to leave a statue that represents such?”
Dylann Roof, the suspect in the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, shared photographs of himself with Confederate battle flags and white supremacist symbols, and reportedly told investigators of his desire to ignite a race war.
What he got was wide condemnation, and a national discussion that has brought change.
Within weeks of the shootings last June, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) signed legislation to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds. The National Park Service removed Confederate flags, T-shirts and other memorabilia from gift shops at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md., and other Civil War sites across the country.
In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the state Motor Vehicle Administration to stop issuing license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag. State lawmakers called for the removal of the statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision, from the State House grounds. Baltimore County officials voted to rename Robert E. Lee Park to Lake Roland Park.
In Baltimore, a task force commissioned by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) recommended removing two of the city’s four Confederate-era monuments. The mayor is awaiting a final report to make a decision.
The Talbot Boys memorial, erected in 1916, more than 50 years after the end of the Civil War, has long been controversial. The current debate has revived the bitter feelings from a decade ago, when the county considered placing a statue of Frederick Douglass across the lawn from the statue.
The abolitionist is Talbot County’s most famous native son. But veterans groups called the courthouse lawn “sacred ground” that should be reserved for memorials to veterans. (It also holds a monument to Vietnam veterans.)
Supporters of the Douglass statue accused opponents of racism. Opponents labeled the supporters unpatriotic.
The council voted 3 to 2 in 2004 to approve the statue. Advocates said it would help offset the Talbot Boys memorial.
Taking a smoke break on a bench near the courthouse recently, Courtney Marshall and Amanda Price agreed that it has achieved that effect.
“Both being up there balances it out,” said Marshall, 24, of St. Michaels.
Price, 25, of Easton, said the controversy over the Talbot Boys monument is “a crock.”
“I don’t think it hurts anybody,” she said. “They should worry about other things besides a statue.”
“I think it should stay,” Marshall said. “It’s part of history.”
Joel Marcus Johnson, retired bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the Chesapeake, said the area was once a slave market.
“The whole idea that that statue stands upon that particular patch of soil where slaves were bought and sold is, to me, the height of hypocrisy,” Johnson said.
Philip C. Foster, who served on the County Council from 1998 to 2010, said the Talbot Boys memorial is an important commemoration of Civil War veterans, including Adm. Franklin Buchanan, the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.
“The statue is not a statue to slavery,” said Foster, an Easton attorney. “It’s a recognition of the individuals that are on it.”
Johnson said that viewing the statue as a monument to the Confederate veterans without taking into account historical context is misguided. When the statue was erected in 1916, Jim Crow laws were in place and blacks were still being lynched on the Eastern Shore.
“We have to interpret that statue through the lens of the time in which it was erected,” said Johnson, who is president of the Oaks of Mamre Interfaith Library and Graduate Center in Easton.
The Talbot Association of Clergy and Laity, which Johnson leads, hosted one of two public discussions on the fate of the statue. A debate included those who thought it should be removed and Confederate descendants who said it is part of their heritage.
The group has also organized a “Conversations on Race” series of suppers in Easton and St. Michaels to bring people of different races together to discuss challenges in the county.
“We can talk about equity and profiling and all of these abstract intellectual conversations until we’re blue in the face,” Johnson said. “But what it requires is that we come to know each other in the heart and in the soul and we do that by understanding each other’s history and each other’s culture.”
The NAACP had asked the county to replace the Talbot Boys statue with a Civil War monument that would recognize both Union and Confederate veterans.
The council won’t budge on the Talbot Boys, Pack said. But he said members are open to suggestions for erecting a second monument to Union veterans.
He acknowledged that Talbot County was home to far more Union soldiers than Confederates.
“We agree that the Confederate statue alone does not accurately depict Talbot County’s role in the Civil War,” Pack said. “If the NAACP of Talbot County or any other group wants to petition the county for a Union statue . . . we’ll be more than happy to look at that.”