Workers came to the Maryland State House grounds after midnight on Friday to dismantle a controversial statue of Supreme Court justice and segregationist Roger B. Taney, the latest ripple effect from the deadly violence at a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville.
Activists had sought for years to remove the 145-year-old statue from the State House complex in Annapolis, saying that to honor Taney — the chief justice whose 1857 Dred Scott decision defended slavery and said blacks could never be U.S. citizens — was hurtful and wrong.
But top state politicians, including Gov. Larry Hogan (R), defended the memorial as an important piece of Maryland history. Until Charlottesville.
Hogan said his revulsion at the demonstration in Virginia, purportedly in defense of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, prompted him to change his mind about the Taney statute and push for its removal.
“We can’t wipe out all of our history, nor should we try to,” the governor said Thursday. “But when it reaches the point where some of these symbols, whether they have historical significance or not, when they become a focal point for racism and violence, then it’s time to do something about it.”
The State House Trust board, which Hogan chairs, voted Wednesday to remove the statue. Thursday night, police blocked off the streets around the State House complex. Soon, a crane and two flatbed trucks arrived.
More than two dozen bystanders looked on as a crew began removing the memorial from its base. Among them was Jolene Ivey, an African American former state delegate from Prince George’s County who began advocating a decade ago for the state to take down the statue. She said that when the legislature voted to erect the statue, a few years after the Civil War, lawmakers were quoted calling the Dred Scott decision “just, righteous and right.”
“How in the world could we continue to have it at the doors of the State House?” Ivey said. “Not at this time.”
As the crane’s arm extended toward the monument shortly after 1 a.m., sprinklers were activated on the State House lawn, briefly disrupting the effort. After work resumed, the crane lifted the statue and maneuvered it to a flatbed truck, where it was wrapped in a tarp and driven away around 2:20 a.m.
The onlookers, who had been largely quiet, chanted “Na, na, na, na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye.” Some said Taney’s likeness appeared to be bowing its head in shame as workers pulled straps around the frame.
“It’s just a bad statue overall,” said Robb Tufts, 43, of Annapolis. “We deserve to celebrate the heroes of Maryland, not the villains of history.”
Cookie Washington, an African American who turned 59 on Friday and has lived in Annapolis since childhood, said the demise of the statue “felt like a birthday treat.”
“With what’s happening in this country lately, it doesn’t feel welcoming for everyone,” she said. “I’m glad to see this.”
The monument was to be placed in an undisclosed state storage facility, Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said. Its base remained on the lawn, covered by a wooden box.
A different statue of Taney and three Confederate memorials were taken down in Baltimore early Wednesday.
President Trump, who has made conflicting statements about who is to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, has decried such removals, saying Thursday that the “history and culture of our great country” was “being ripped apart.”
Hogan countered that the president “probably should stop talking about the issue because not very many people are agreeing with him these days.”
Not everyone agreed with Hogan, either. Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) lashed out at the governor in a letter Thursday for not holding a public hearing on whether to remove the statue.
Miller, an avid reader of history who also sits on the State House Trust board, said the memorial should stay put to help educate people about the past. He credited Taney for “anti-slavery words and actions,” saying that “unlike George Washington who freed his slaves upon his death, Taney freed his slaves early in his life.” He also noted Taney’s many roles in public service, including state lawmaker and attorney general, U.S. secretary of war, U.S. attorney general and U.S. treasury secretary.
Voting by email — the board’s traditional way of doing business — was “just plain wrong,” Miller wrote, adding that the matter was “of such consequence that the transparency of a public meeting and public conversation should have occurred.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who is also on the board and voted to remove the statue, said he was “pleased” it was gone. “One hundred and fifty two years after the end of the Civil War, we don’t need a symbol on the front of the Maryland State House that continues to divide people,” he said in a statement.
Conservative blogger Greg Kline, describing himself as a “proud and unabashed apologist” for Hogan, wrote on RedMaryland.com that for once he could not support the governor. “Here are words I thought I would never write: Senate President Mike Miller is exactly right on this issue and Governor Hogan is lamentably wrong,” Kline wrote.
The governor also received some critical comments on his Facebook page. “I voted for Hogan once,” Pat Rollins wrote. “Fool me once. He is a coward for removing that statue of Taney in the middle of the night.”
Maryland placed the Taney statue on the lawn of the capitol complex in 1872. Since then, it has added interpretive plaques explaining the Dred Scott opinion and erected a statue of Thurgood Marshall, a Baltimore native who was the first African American Supreme Court justice, on the opposite side of the State House. The trust agreed last year to erect statues in the State House honoring abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
Benjamin Jealous, the former NAACP president who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Hogan in 2018, says he would push to take down all Confederate statues in the state if he is elected.“There’s no room for symbols of hate in our state,” he said.
But Hogan said Friday that choice is up to localities. “We’re not going to tell every jurisdiction what to do,” he said. “They have to make the decision for themselves.”