Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones called the Civil War commemorative plaque that sits in the rotunda of the Maryland State House an “affront to people of color,” a relic that “had no place” in the grand marble hall.
The Maryland State House Trust board, a four-member panel that controls the grounds of the capitol complex, voted 3 to 1 to alter the plaque instead. The state will spend about $2,500 to replace the image of the Confederate battle flag with the Maryland flag.
“I just was really very disappointed,” Jones, who serves on the board and cast the lone dissenting vote, said in a recent interview. “I know that people interpret things different ways, but there was a reason why I felt so strongly about that.”
Jones said the language on the plaque, which was written during the height of the civil rights movement, sympathizes with the Confederates.
The plaque reads in part: “In commemorating the centennial of that great struggle between the citizens of the temporarily divided nation in the 1860s the Maryland Civil War Centennial Commission did not attempt to decide who was right and who was wrong, or to make decisions on other controversial issues. . . . By doing so it seeks to pay tribute to those who fought and died. As well as to the citizens who, during the Civil War, tried to do their duty as they saw it.”
In a May letter to the board, Jones said that message “does not seek to correctly document history but instead sympathizes with Confederate motivations and memorializes Confederate soldiers. History clearly tells us that there was a right and a wrong side of the Civil War.”
Jones said the other members of the board — Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and Laura Mears, the chairwoman of the Maryland Historical Trust — “missed the point.” The vote was taken by email.
The vote was the latest action by elected officials across the country trying to confront the nation’s racist history and deal with the monuments and symbols that represent that past. In the wake of the deadly August 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville opposing the removal of a Confederate statue, Maryland removed the statue of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney from the lawn of the State House. Taney was the author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery and denied citizenship to black people.
Rutherford suggested removing the logo of the Civil War Centennial Commission, which features a Confederate flag, and replacing it with the Maryland flag, “while still acknowledging the sacrifices Marylanders made during the Civil War.” In a letter to the board, Rutherford called the Confederate flag “a divisive symbol” that “has no place in this or any state house.”
“We cannot erase our history, nor should we,” wrote Rutherford, who is African American. “It is important that we remember, and teach future generations, that ours was a divided state. . . . We have an obligation to represent our history appropriately.”
But Rutherford did not recommend removing or altering the inscription on the plaque that Jones found offensive.
Monica Martinez, an assistant professor of American studies at Brown University, said that while some may view the board’s vote as a compromise, she wouldn’t classify it that way.
“It’s a gesture that at least acknowledges that there has been conflict over what the flag symbolizes and its use in the resurgence of white terror groups,” she said. “But not being willing to look at the language of how the Civil War and the role of Confederate soldiers is being interpreted for the public in this plaque sends a signal that we have a long way to go before we are actually able to confront not just the history itself but the ways and attempts to portray the history in a way that still causes harm.”
Jones said she has received numerous calls and emails from colleagues who supported her effort. She said she is unaware of a way to revisit the issue, especially before the plaque is altered.
Jones, who won election after a divisive battle in the House of Delegates, said she had often walked by the plaque on the first floor of the State House but had never read it until this year. “It didn’t sit well with me,” she said. “I felt the need to do something about it.”
She said she didn’t want to question the motivations of the other board members but hoped that in the future, they will make a greater effort to “look at both sides,” particularly why she and others would view the language as “hurtful.”
“We still have a long way to go,” Jones said.