A proposal to place statues of anti-slavery heroes Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in the Maryland State House would add a new chapter to the history of Maryland as told through its iconic capitol building.
The plan would help educate future generations of visitors about the key roles in U.S. history played by the two 19th-century Marylanders who were born into bondage on the Eastern Shore.
It would also make a statement about where Maryland stands in the early 21st century — much as the statue of a brooding Chief Justice Roger B. Taney outside the State House’s front door represents the pro-Southern sentiments in the state in the post-Civil War era.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel), both Democrats, recently proposed the plan to place statues of Tubman and Douglass in the Old House of Delegates Chamber. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) quickly embraced the idea.
The support of the three top leaders makes it virtually certain that Tubman and Douglass will take their place among the select group of historical figures honored with statues at the nation’s oldest state capitol building still being used by a legislature.
Miller said it’s especially important for the thousands of schoolchildren who tour the State House each year.
“They’ve got to see people they can relate to and understand and help them interpret our state’s history,” he said. “We have these two prominent people who played a huge role in our state’s history and our nation’s history.”
Tubman was born into slavery in Dorchester County around 1820. She escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 and began in Maryland to conduct hundreds of slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, she served as a spy and a scout for the Union Army. This year, the Treasury Department announced that her image would replace that of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.
Douglass, born in Talbot County around 1818, escaped from slavery in Baltimore in 1838. He soon emerged as one of the most effective writers and orators in the movement to abolish slavery. He gained prominence not just in the United States but in Europe as an abolitionist and an early advocate of equality for women. During the Civil War, he served as an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln and helped recruit African American troops for the Union. He later served as a diplomat in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
While many of the details still must be worked out by the State House Trust, it appears likely that Tubman and Douglass would join a select group of individuals to be memorialized in statues on the State House and its grounds.
The original and most controversial such figure is Taney. The jurist from Maryland is best known as the author of the Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court held that African Americans have no rights that whites are bound to respect.
Taney stayed with the Union when the Civil War broke out and continued as chief justice until his death in 1864, but the ruling he wrote is regarded as one of the factors that sparked that conflict.
In the 1990s, in response to calls from black lawmakers and others for the Taney statue’s removal, state officials crafted a compromise under which a larger memorial was erected honoring Thurgood Marshall. The civil rights attorney, a Marylander, became the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court.
The Marshall memorial now stands in Lawyers Mall, across from the 1905-1906 State House annex in which the General Assembly meets. It is a site with much greater traffic than Taney’s location. But its prominence hasn’t stilled the calls for the Taney statue to go.
Miller and Busch have proposed placing statues of Tubman and Douglass across the Rotunda from the Old Senate Chamber, where George Washington resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army in 1783.
The restored room reopened in 2015 with a life-size statue showing Washington addressing Congress, then meeting in Annapolis, in what is regarded as a vital affirmation of civilian rule in the new United States. The restoration and the statue have been widely praised. However, it is hard to escape that in honoring Washington, Maryland is paying tribute to a slaveholder.
Placement of the Tubman and Douglass statues across the hall in the Old House chamber could provide a rough balance. Early this decade, the chamber was restored to its appearance in 1876, about a decade after the end of the Civil War and at a time when the two anti-slavery leaders were still alive.
“Both played key roles in that time period,” Busch said. “The chamber is of that time period.”
The speaker said he sees no connection between the proposal to honor the anti-slavery leaders and the Taney controversy.
“This stands on its own,” he said.
The addition of a Tubman statue would also be a step toward addressing the underrepresentation of women in the State House’s telling of Maryland history. For now, the most prominent depiction of a woman in the building is that of a spectator — the statue of Molly Ridout watching Washington from the gallery of the Old Senate Chamber.
Elaine Rice Bachmann, deputy state archivist, said the statues of Tubman and Douglass would most likely be placed at the rear of the chamber facing the speaker’s rostrum, on either side of the large portrait of Gov. Thomas Holliday Hicks, a proslavery politician who nevertheless helped keep Maryland in the Union.
That is the room where the Maryland House voted on the post-Civil War constitutional amendments that abolished slavery and extended civil and voting rights to African Americans. Tubman and Douglass were not actually present for those votes, in which Maryland rejected those amendments.
“It will be an interpretive challenge because we’re putting people in that space who were never there historically,” Bachmann said.
Tentative plans call for the statues to be life-size and approachable by the public, like the depiction of Washington. That would let visitors touch the statues and pose for photographs with them — as people do with Washington’s statue.
Bachmann said that is preferable to statues on the State House grounds.
“Putting them on a human scale in the building gives us a better opportunity to reach people,” she said.
Kenneth B. Morris Jr., Douglass’ great-great-great grandson, said he’s excited about the proposal, but has taken no position on the statues’ placement.
“It should be in a place where the most children have an opportunity to see it,” said Morris, president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. “I would support the place where they would get the interpretive story.”
Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore), chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said she welcomes the proposed indoor statues. But she would still like to see a full-sized memorial to Tubman near the Marshall statue.
“I look at that being in addition to and not instead of,” she said.
Glenn warned that adding the Tubman and Douglass depictions would not mollify critics who want to see the Taney statue removed from the grounds.
“That’s a real sore issue with African Americans,” she said.
Miller, a longtime student of Maryland history, said there is more to Taney than Dred Scott. He said he had a long, distinguished career as chief justice apart from that ruling. The Senate president said an opinion Taney drafted as President Andrew Jackson’s attorney general later formed the basis for Lincoln’s decision to fight South Carolina’s secession from the Union.
So while he says he’s “excited” about adding Tubman and Douglass, he opposes proposals to erase Taney from the State House historical record.
“That’s not going to happen as long as I’m here,” he said.