On a recent afternoon, a pair of white, Trump-supporting cyclists clicked their tongues at the incomplete monument at White’s Ferry near Poolesville, criticizing what they said was an attempt to erase history.
Moments earlier, a black hiker had shaken his head at what he knew had been erected there — a symbol, he said, of a community’s willingness to venerate the Confederacy well into 2020.
“Unbelievable,” said Rich Geyer of Pittsburgh, who was passing through western Montgomery County on his way to Washington for President Trump’s July Fourth celebration. “People hate America.”
“What used to be here doesn’t surprise me,” said Lee Byrd, the African American hiker from Baltimore. “I’m 57. I’ve been in America a long time.”
Across the street, Richard Brown, 42, sat at a picnic table, wishing people would stop looking at a statue that was no longer there. His family owns and operates White’s Ferry, the last of the more than 100 ferries that used to traverse the Potomac River.
Brown’s grandfather, who accepted the statue of a Confederate soldier from a county government that wanted it gone, died in January.
After the 107-year-old statue was defaced and toppled on June 16, the Brown family removed it and placed it in storage, where they say it will stay indefinitely. The family also recently took down a sign on the ferry, which for years bore the name “Gen. Jubal A. Early” — a Confederate general and white supremacist who spent his life promoting the “Lost Cause” mythology.
A new sign was installed: “Historic White’s Ferry.”
“It’s gone, they’re both gone. There’s nothing more we can do,” said Brown. “We just want to move on. Put it behind us.”
In recent weeks, nationwide protests against long-standing racial inequities have reignited criticism of Confederate monuments and their place in society. Dozens of statues in and around the nation’s capital have been vandalized, pulled down by crowds or formally removed, including those of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee in Richmond.
In liberal Montgomery, people defaced and took down the White’s Ferry statue, as well as a grave marker for 17 Confederate soldiers in Silver Spring. County Council member Andrew Friedson (D-District 1), whose district includes White’s Ferry, called on County Executive Marc Elrich (D) to review all the streets in the county and rename those that bear the names of Confederate soldiers.
“The last thing — the absolute last thing — that I want visitors to see when they cross the river into Montgomery County is a Confederate statue,” said Friedson, 33.
“These symbols should have gone down a long time ago,” said Charles Chavis, a history professor who sits on the board of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. “For African Americans, these are constant reminders of trauma; of the separation of families and the dismantling of blood lines.”
The statue at White’s Ferry was commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913 to commemorate Confederate soldiers from Montgomery. It depicted a young cavalry private, standing on top of a pedestal with the engraved plaque that reads: “To Our Heroes of Montgomery Co., Maryland, That We Through Life May Not Forget To Love The Thin Gray Line.”
The statue sat outside Rockville’s Red Brick Courthouse for decades. In 2015, Ike Leggett, the county’s first African American county executive, ordered it removed from public land.
A team that was assembled to figure out where to relocate it asked the Brown family patriarch, R. Edwin Brown, if he would take the statue, said Patrick Lacefield, who was Leggett’s spokesman. Brown agreed, and in 2017, the county formally transferred ownership to him, spending more than $100,000 in taxpayer dollars to transport the statue from Rockville to White’s Ferry.
After it arrived, the Brown family started working with Heritage Montgomery, a local nonprofit, to design interpretive panels that would describe the history of the ferry and the statue.
The nonprofit was close to finishing the panels and planned to install them this July, said executive director Sarah Rogers. The write-up for the statue, which had been approved by local historians, activists, and the Brown family, said Confederate statues were sometimes “made and placed to intimidate and reinforce ideas of white supremacy.”
It’s unclear what will happen to these panels now, Rogers said. Many local historians want to see the panels installed, but because it is private property, it will be up to the Browns.
Lacefield, who no longer works for the county government, serves as the vice president for the Montgomery County Civil War roundtable and said the organization is “very strongly opposed to any relocation or erasure of either union or Confederate monuments.” Panels and plaques can be added, he said, but the monuments should not be removed.
“The notion of going into private property and destroying the property and vandalizing history is something people ought to take a strong stand against,” said Lacefield, who is white. He said the Montgomery County Police Department is investigating the defacement of the White’s Ferry statue and the Silver Spring grave marker.
“Nothing that’s being done to pull down these statues is making anybody any better off,” Lacefield said.
Local historian Tony Cohen disagrees. Cohen, who is black, leads the Montgomery County Lynching Memorial Project and runs a foundation that preserves and shares the history of the Underground Railroad in Maryland.
In 2015, he was among a group of historians that campaigned for the Confederate statue to stay in Rockville. He argued at the time that the artifact was valuable evidence that Montgomery was a slaveholding county, and that even though Maryland did not secede, there were many residents who sympathized with the Confederate cause.
After doing more research on Confederate statues, he has changed his mind, and thinks they should only be installed in museums or other educational settings.
“A great degree of racism was involved in where to place these statues,” Cohen said. “The emotional and psychic impact that these statues had — and have — changed the tide for me.”
Sitting near the pedestal one recent afternoon, Richard Brown said he didn’t have anything to say about what the statue meant, only that it was gone. He worked at the ferry for a decade when he was younger, but wasn’t there when the statue was erected.
“It never bothered me,” said Brown, dressed in brown cargo shorts, a blue T-shirt, and a red baseball cap with the logo of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. “It was just a small little emblem.”
Several months after his grandfather’s death, the coronavirus came to Maryland, spurring a statewide “stay-at-home” order. The daily wave of commuters who used the ferry to go from Leesburg, Va., to Maryland slowed to a trickle. Revenue dropped to the lowest it had been in years, Brown said.
Business was picking up slightly as Maryland reopened. Then, in early June, the family matriarch — R. Edwin Brown’s wife and the younger Brown’s grandmother — died.
So even before the statue was toppled, Brown said, it had felt like the legacy of the ferry was hanging in the balance. His father, Herbert Brown, inherited the business and wanted above all to be rid of the statue’s shadow.
“We’re just a small business,” Herbert Brown said gruffly over the phone on Tuesday.
“[The statue] is gone! It’s gone, okay? We don’t want the publicity. We just want to be left alone. Our father agreed to take it, and he’s dead.”
“Let it go,” he pleaded. “It’s gone.”