BALTIMORE — For a hundred years, the statue of a grieving mother gazed down from a pedestal in a park near the Johns Hopkins University campus in North Baltimore, her Confederate soldier son dying nobly in her arms.
The Confederate Women’s Monument is long gone now, hauled away along with the city’s other three Confederate statues in 2017. But visitors to the half-acre of grass and trees known as Bishop Square Park can see an African American civil rights legend in its place.
Thanks to Color of Change, an online advocacy group based in California, smartphone users can use an app to view U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia atop the 10-foot granite plinth. Or they could choose to see Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, or Chelsea Miller, a millennial racial justice leader, and hear them speak about why it’s important to fight for change.
The pedestals are empty because Baltimore, like other cities, is far from finished with its conversation about what should replace the disgraced statues, let alone being ready to address the complex logistical challenges involved.
“This has been a period of tremendous turmoil in this country,” said Lawrence T. Brown, a former associate professor in Morgan State University’s School of Community Health in Baltimore.
“We’ve had George Floyd being [killed at the hands of police in Minnesota], we’ve had a pandemic, we’ve had folks tearing down statues to Christopher Columbus,” Brown said. “We’re in a period of trying to wrestle with Baltimore’s, and America’s, demons of our past.
“I don’t think we’ve settled on the values we want to celebrate moving forward.”
Baltimore has been assessing what to do with its four Confederate monuments for years.
They’ve been on the scene, of course, for many decades. It was just 20 years after the Civil War that Baltimore businessman and art collector William T. Walters commissioned a statue of Roger B. Taney, the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice from Maryland who wrote the infamous opinion in the landmark Dred Scott case in 1857.
The decision held, among other things, that African Americans were not and could never be considered citizens of the United States. The sculpture loomed over Mount Vernon Place for 130 years.
Although Taney wasn’t strictly a Confederate figure, organizations such as the United Confederate Veterans and the Maryland chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy worked with officials over the next few decades to make sure Confederate monuments became part of the city landscape — the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Bolton Hill in 1903, the women’s monument in Homewood in 1917, the Robert E. Lee-Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson Monument in Wyman Park Dell in 1948.
Backers insisted the statues championed not white supremacy, but such virtues as the courage of Confederate soldiers and the right of states to determine their destinies. Counterarguments coalesced as city demographics changed.
It wasn’t until 2015 — after the self-described white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine African American worshipers in a church in Charleston, S.C. — that then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appointed a special commission to consider what to do with the monuments.
In their 2016 report, the scholars, historians and artists on the panel discarded any notion that the statues were benign: “The monuments studied by this commission were yet another tool used to glorify White supremacy, and that vision is indefensible today,” they wrote. They recommended that the Taney and Lee-Jackson statues be removed and “a very serious recontextualization” added to the others.
The Democratic mayor deemed any removal cost-prohibitive, instead providing explanatory plaques at all four sites. But in August 2017, a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that turned deadly inspired her successor, Democrat Catherine E. Pugh, to order all four taken away.
Workers quietly completed the task the night of Aug. 16. The next morning, Baltimore awoke to the empty pedestals left behind. The statues are kept in an undisclosed location.
In the hours before the city action, Morgan State’s Brown was in Wyman Park demonstrating for the statues’ removal.
“Monuments speak to the values people have in a given place and time, and those monuments did accomplish that for the people who put them up, when Baltimore was a majority-White city,” said Brown, whose book on racial justice, “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America,” was published in January. “They don’t speak to the values of the city now.”
One prominent faith leader says it speaks well of Baltimore that the city not only had the courage to formally reject, and eventually remove, monuments that many found hateful, but that it did so peacefully and is taking the time to weigh its options.
The Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, works at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, directly across Charles Street from where the Confederate Women’s Monument stood from 1917 to 2017.
He labored there for years before taking much note of the statue, he said, let alone wrestling with its meaning. But once the new national conversation on race put it in the spotlight, he began leading the diocese in prayer about how to turn the space into something positive.
Sutton, the diocese’s first Black leader, led a rally at the pedestal this month to commemorate the life of the Right Rev. Barbara C. Harris, the first woman to be consecrated (in 1989) as a bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion, the denomination of which the Episcopal Church is a part.
The group held a banner depicting Harris across the pedestal as a way of honoring the bishop, a longtime civil rights activist who died last year.
“Public spaces should be for all the people — all the people,” he said. “We deliberately rallied there to help redeem that space.”
He isn’t the first to try reclaiming the sites.
For a time in 2017, an artist’s papier-mache statue of a pregnant woman, “Madre Luz,” stood on the pedestal that served as the base for the Lee-Jackson statue in Wyman Park for nearly 70 years.
Graffiti, some of it in blood-red paint, covers part of that base today. The plaza in which it sits was rededicated in 2018 as Harriet Tubman Grove. A plaque tells of Tubman’s legacy as an abolitionist legend. “Harriet Tubman Grove: Rewriting History or Righting a Wrong?” the headline reads.
In Mount Vernon Place, neighbors and others have developed a custom of creating pop-up installations, posting temporary signs, even conducting rituals of healing atop and around the base where Taney once sat.
To Denise Meringolo, a public historian at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, that kind of use is a positive development.
Meringolo argues that permanent monuments of any kind serve less as statements of art or history than as assertions of power, of whatever values hold sway at a given moment.
Those change so much as time passes, she says, that more flexible forms are needed.
“Before we even can imagine doing anything with the pedestals, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Do we think it’s important to have things on top of pedestals?’ I’d be more interested in seeing those places turned into spaces for forums and discussions than for monuments of the old-fashioned kind.”
Not that there’s any lack of ideas for memorials of either variety. When the Rawlings-Blake commission solicited recommendations from the public, nearly 200 people weighed in.
Suggestions ranged from preserving the statues, while adding historical context, to melting them down and using the metal to create ones of civil rights leaders.
Brown says Baltimore’s very landscape ignores much of its richest history, from the slave trade that flourished in the Inner Harbor to the Pratt Street Riots of 1861. Sutton says the diocese would work with the city to finance a statue of Pauli Murray, a groundbreaking, Baltimore-born attorney and activist whose legal writings influenced future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and who later became in 1977 the first African American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest.
“She’s not very famous, but she broke so many barriers,” he said. “That’s the kind of woman who needs to be honored.”
Any such projects would be subject to approval by a range of authorities, from the mayor and City Council to the Maryland Historical Trust, a division of the Maryland Department of Planning.
The state claims partial ownership, through easements, of three of the four sites, according to Eric Holcomb, division chief of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Planning, or CHAP, a city agency.
Pugh overrode those authorities, citing security concerns, in 2017. Her successor, Democrat Bernard C. “Jack” Young, chose not to address the monument issue during his 20 months as mayor.
New Mayor Brandon Scott, a Democrat, did not respond to requests for comment. But he spoke on the campaign trail last year of making a comprehensive review of the city’s entire memorial landscape, from its street and school names to its monuments. And his transition report included a recommendation that the city appoint a task force “to review the work [on Confederate monuments] that has been completed to date, create a plan with assigned tasks and responsibilities, and identify a funding and implementation timeline.”
Stefanie Mavronis, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said that the issue remains “near and dear” to Scott’s heart and that he would address it once he has had a chance to tackle more urgent matters early in his term.
In the meantime, smartphone users can make use of the Color of Change initiative, dubbed the Pedestal Project, at any of the four empty pedestals in Baltimore — or any pedestal that still stands empty in the wake of the widespread civic unrest of the past year.
Once physically at a site, they can log on to Instagram, download the lens for the Pedestal Project and see the lifelike, three-dimensional digital images of Lewis, Garza or Miller — created by the African American sculptor Spencer Evans — and hear them hold forth on struggling for change.
“We do want to take down Confederate symbols, but just as importantly, we want to replace them with symbols of a just America,” Color of Change President Rashad Robinson said of the augmented-reality program launched last month. “By using virtual technology to replace these statues with people, events and ideas that move our country forward, instead of taking us backward, we can turn these pedestals into a celebration of progress.”
To Brown, that’s a promising beginning.
“It takes some time to create things that speak to our values and give us a vision that points to the future,” he said. “If there was ever a time to start, it’s now.”
— Baltimore Sun