The student activist who led the successful push to rename the University of Maryland football stadium is trying to jump-start a movement to erect a statue of Harriet Tubman on the grounds of the Maryland State House.
The area surrounding the capitol building has long been controversial because it houses a statue of Roger Taney, the Supreme Court justice who authored the proslavery Dred Scott decision.
A compromise struck in the mid-1990s kept the Taney statue on the grounds while adding a statue of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American appointed to the nation’s highest court.
Legislation that called for placing statues of Tubman and fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass alongside Taney failed in 2012 and 2013.
Colin Byrd, a University of Maryland student who is pushing for the Tubman statue, says he is banking on extra momentum after the Treasury Department decided to put Tubman on $20 bills.
Byrd says adding a statue of Tubman to the State House grounds without taking down Taney’s statue should mollify critics who say removing memorials to slavery supporters is tantamount to erasing history.
“Even those people would agree a lot of history can be learned from Harriet Tubman’s life and times,” Byrd said. “It’s about balance . . . there were two sides to this slavery debate, and Tubman was on the right side of it, while Taney was wrong.”
Byrd organized fellow students to push university regents last year to change the name of the school’s football stadium, which had honored segregationist and former university president H.C. “Curley” Byrd.
The board voted 12-to-5 in December to change the name of the facility to “Maryland Stadium.”
So far, state lawmakers have not signed onto Colin Byrd’s effort to add a Tubman statue outside the State House. But Byrd — who is African American and not related to the long-ago university president — has received high-profile backing from actress Viola Davis, who is playing Tubman in an upcoming HBO biopic.
In a statement released by her production company, Davis said Tubman was “an integral part of American history, and it’s time for the masses to truly understand and acknowledge the scope of who she was and what she has accomplished — that, quite bluntly, no man ever has.”
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) sent Gov. Larry Hogan (R) a letter this month in support of a Tubman statue. Elected officials in Dorchester County, where Tubman was born, have urged legislative leaders to support the effort.
Another attempt by officials in Maryland to honor Tubman fizzled in 2011.
Activists, with the support of then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), had pushed to replace a statue in the U.S. Capitol of John Hanson — an 18th-century slave owner from southern Maryland who was a member of the Continental Congress — with one of Tubman. A bill requesting the swap did not pass.