The Maryland State House Trust voted unanimously Monday to remove a plaque that sympathizes with the Confederacy, part of a nationwide reckoning with monuments that honor the country’s racist past.
It was the second time in Jones’s short tenure she pressed for the plaque’s removal; in the fall, with then-Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. on the panel, the trust voted instead to spend $2,400 to buff out a Confederate flag at the top of the plaque.
This time, Jones (D-Baltimore County) did not have to settle for a compromise she opposed.
The bronze plaque was installed inside the State House in 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement. It commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Civil War by honoring people who fought on both sides of the bloody struggle to end slavery.
Maryland was a slaveholding border state that remained in the Union during the war. Many of its power brokers were Confederate sympathizers. The inscription on the plaque says the Maryland Civil War Centennial Commission “did not attempt to decide who was right and who was wrong” in the conflict.
Jones called that language, as well as the Confederate flag, “an affront to people of color,” saying “history clearly tells us there was a right and a wrong side of the Civil War.” She made pushing for its removal one of her first official acts after being elected speaker last year.
Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R), who is also African American, serves as Gov. Larry Hogan’s designee on the trust. He pushed last October to modify the plaque by removing the Confederate flag — which he agreed was “a divisive symbol.” But Rutherford suggested keeping the plaque in place because “we cannot erase our history, nor should we.”
Jones cast the lone dissenting vote on that idea.
Since then, the composition of the trust shifted. Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) in January replaced Miller (D-Calvert), who had voted to keep the plaque in place, saying it held educational value about the state’s flawed past.
Miller offered similar justification for retaining the statue of Roger B. Taney on State House grounds. Taney, as U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, wrote the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision that justified slavery. His statue was removed from the State House lawn in 2017 at the suggestion of then-Speaker Michael E. Busch. Hogan (R) initiated an overnight removal of the statue after the deadly Unite the Right protests and counterprotest in Charlottesville.
Unlike recent public demonstrations in Virginia and elsewhere, in which protesters ripped down monuments, the decision to remove the plaque played out quietly, by email vote.
Ferguson endorsed the idea four minutes after Jones’s proposal was sent to trust members Thursday afternoon, saying it was “timely, and necessary.”
The next day, Rutherford, who has called the protests over the killing of George Floyd in police custody “a turning point in our nation,” said he voted last year for the plaque to remain so that State House visitors would understand that Maryland was a slave state and many people “fought to maintain that inhuman system.”
He pressed Friday for the plaque to be replaced with something “to remind visitors how far we have come and how much further we need to go.”
“To build a better future, we must reckon with our past, not hide from it,” Rutherford said.
Jones resisted. On Monday, Rutherford agreed to remove the plaque without a replacement.
“It is my sincere hope that our conversation about Maryland’s history — the good, the bad and the ugly — does not end here,” he wrote. “The symbolism of simply removing a plaque, is insufficient to what this moment requires.”
The fourth member of the panel is Laura Davis Mears, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Maryland Historical Trust.
After Rutherford weighed in Monday, she voted to take the plaque down, saying removal would not “affect the historic significance” of the State House.
But, she added, “in my personal opinion, interpreting the plaque as a product of its time would be more instructive than seeking to simply erase an aspect of history that makes us uncomfortable.”
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