At the height of the civil rights era, in 1964, the Maryland Civil War Centennial Commission installed a plaque in the grand marble hall of the Maryland State House. Del. Adrienne A. Jones walked past it for two decades before stopping to read it last week.
“You’re kidding,” Jones (D-Baltimore County), who this month became the state’s first African American speaker of the House, recalled saying when she saw the plaque’s message.
“This has no place here, no place,” she added. “It’s an affront to people of color.”
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.”
Jones decided it had to come down.
She flexed her newfound power as a member of the State House Trust, which oversees the preservation and maintenance of the 240-year-old building.
On Thursday, in her first official act outside a ceremonial bill-signing, she sent a letter to the trust asking it to remove the plaque, saying it is inappropriate and offensive to honor Confederate soldiers alongside those who fought for the Union.
“History clearly tells us there was a right and a wrong side of the Civil War,” Jones wrote. “I believe it is our duty to ensure truth in history for what it is, not what some may have wished it to be.”
Jones was elected House speaker after a tense three-way battle that deeply divided the House Democratic Caucus and the Legislative Black Caucus. She is the first woman and the first African American to lead either chamber of the Maryland General Assembly.
Her letter said the plaque does not seek to document history but “instead sympathizes with Confederate motivations and memorializes Confederate soldiers . . . ‘Doing their duty as they saw it’ does not give a pass to the cause these soldiers fought for.”
Maryland was a slaveholding border state that remained in the Union during the Civil War, though many people in power were Confederate sympathizers.
A far more prominent tribute to the Confederacy was removed from the State House grounds in 2017, shortly after the deadly Unite the Right rally and counterprotest in Charlottesville.
In an overnight operation initiated by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), workers hauled away a statue of former U.S. chief justice Roger B. Taney, a segregationist from Frederick County who wrote the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, which asserted that blacks could never be citizens and allowed the expansion of slavery in U.S. territories.
Historians widely cite Taney’s decision as a key issue that propelled the country to war.