The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Md. panel approves contract to build Tubman, Douglass statues for State House

The Maryland Board of Public Works approved a contract for design and construction of statues of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
The Maryland Board of Public Works approved a contract for design and construction of statues of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A project to erect statues of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in the Maryland State House is moving forward two years after it was launched by Democratic legislative leaders, despite questions over the contracting process.

Maryland’s Board of Public Works unanimously approved a single-source contract Wednesday for the design and construction of statues of the famed abolitionists who escaped slavery.

The proposal, which Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) submitted in 2016, was intended to mollify opponents of the statue of segregationist Roger B. Taney that at the time was on State House grounds.

Taney was the U.S. chief justice who wrote the pro-slavery Dred Scott decision in 1857. His statue was removed from the State House complex at the urging of Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Busch after the deadly unrest at a rally in Charlottesville in 2017, in which white supremacists ­defended Confederate memorials.

In the meantime, the plans for two new statues inched forward, frustrating legislative leaders. The project also has been criticized by some officials for not having an open bidding process.

“They were supposed to be ready and installed in March, and they tell me it’s going to take another year,” Miller said in the Senate chamber last week. “What kind of nonsense is that?”

Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the project could not be considered by the Board of Public Works until the state received approval from Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office for a single-source contract. The Maryland State Archives requested a sole-source contract so the statues could be designed by the same company responsible for a statue of George Washington that was placed in the Old Senate Chamber several years ago.

Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who sits on the board with Hogan and Treasurer Nancy Kopp (D), said Wednesday morning that he was “very, very pleased” that the state was honoring Tubman and Douglass. But he questioned why the $575,477 bid contract was awarded to Brooklyn-based StudioEIS.

Franchot read parts of a letter written to Hogan on Tuesday by freshman Del. Julian Ivey (D-Prince George’s), who urged the governor to delay consideration of the contract because the company is not based in Maryland and has no minority business participation.

“If the State of Maryland is going to honor Ms. Tubman and Mr. Douglass, we need to do it in the right way,” Ivey wrote. “In a way that appropriately and fully celebrates and shows appreciation for their contributions to Maryland history.”

The state archives requested the same company that designed the Washington statue so “the level of detail, finish and overall artistry should match,” according to a memo dated June 27.

At Miller’s request, Frosh’s office examined the case and said it met the legal requirements for sole-source procurement because StudioEIS is “uniquely qualified” to undertake the project.

Miller and Busch sent a letter the next day to Department of General Services Secretary Ellington Churchill urging him “to proceed expeditiously with the procurement.”

“Maryland has the largest African American population of any state outside of the Deep South, yet black historic figures are unrepresented in our State House,” they wrote.

The general contractor for the project is Christman Co., which has done previous projects in the historic State House. Christman has eight offices nationwide, including one in Sterling, Va., and will have 390 days to complete the project.

The life-size bronze statues will be installed in the Old House Chamber, where the legislature in 1864 adopted the state constitution that abolished slavery. Ivan Schwartz, the founder and director of StudioEIS, said he will do “scrupulous research” before designing the statues, which he noted will each weigh between 250 and 400 pounds.

Legislation to install statues of Tubman and Douglass alongside Taney failed in the General ­Assembly in 2012 and 2013. A bill to remove Taney’s statue from State House grounds died in 2016.

Miller had opposed removing Taney’s statue, saying it should stay put to help educate people about the past, and that Hogan and Busch should have held a public hearing before taking action.

He credited Taney for his later “anti-slavery words and actions” and noted Taney’s many roles in public service, including as a state lawmaker and attorney general, U.S. secretary of war, U.S. attorney general and U.S. treasury secretary.

After his comments drew protests from African American ministers and others in his legislative district, Miller said in a statement that he regretted distracting from the larger issue of opposing racism and promoting unity in Maryland and the country.

He called the violence in Charlottesville “horrific and reprehensible . . . the unspeakable acts of racists” and reiterated his past criticism of the “wrongheaded” Dred Scott ruling, which said black people could never be citizens, whether slaves or free.

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.