After several months of prodding from the first African-American presiding officer of the Maryland General Assembly, the panel that controls the State House has voted to remove a plaque that paid tribute to the soldiers who fought on both sides of the Civil War.
The Civil War Centennial Commission plaque, located on the main level of the State House, was installed at the height of the U.S. civil rights struggle, in 1964, to mark the passing of 100 years from the start of the bloody conflict over slavery that threatened the nation’s survival.
Maryland fought on the union side but many whites were sympathetic to the South’s cause.
In installing the plaque more than 50 years, ago, the commission said it was not seeking to determine “who was right and who was wrong.”
Rather, “it seeks to pay tribute to those who fought and died, as well as the citizens who, during the civil war, tried to do their duty, as they saw it.”
After House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) objected to the plaque shortly after taking office, the State House Trust voted 3-1 last fall to buff out a Confederate flag.
But she renewed her objections to the plaque again last week in the wake of global protests — and calls for justice and social reforms — sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“The past two weeks have reignited our national conversation about the systemic racial injustice that continues throughout the United States of America,” Jones wrote.
“This plaque is not a symbol that belongs in our seat of government: the very place where Washington resigned his Commission to create our country; where we have passed monumental civil rights laws; and where we have stood together to work toward equality for every Marylander,” she added. “I again ask for a formal vote to remove this plaque.”
Jones was elected speaker in May 2019, becoming the first African-American to preside over either chamber of the state legislature.
In an exchange of emails with members of the panel, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore) sided with Jones.
“Thank you for this timely, and necessary proposal,” he wrote. “I thank the Speaker for her leadership on this issue and vote in support of the removal of this plaque.”
In an email last week, Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), who serves as the Hogan administration’s representative on the panel, said he could support removing the plaque with a replacement commemoration that accurately reflects Maryland’s history in the Civil War.
“As I stated last year when this issue was first presented, I want to make sure visitors to the State House understand that Maryland was a slave state,” wrote Rutherford, who is Black.
“That many Marylanders fought to maintain that inhuman system — America’s original sin. I’m certain the Speaker agrees that the events of the past two weeks have highlighted the issue of racial injustice, and that it’s time for all of us, no matter what our race, age, gender or creed is, to look deeply within ourselves to acknowledge there’s work to be done.”
“To build a better future, we must reckon with our past, not hide from it,” Rutherford added. “Erasing our history just because it makes us uncomfortable harms the work we must do.”
On Monday, Rutherford also supported removing the plaque, but said, “the symbolism of simply removing a plaque is insufficient to what this moment requires.”
Laura Mears, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Maryland Historical Trust, Maryland’s State Historic Preservation Office, offered general support for Rutherford’s view.
“Removal of a plaque which speaks to the state’s division during the Civil War will not help us to cure the injuries caused by that division,” she wrote.
“In my personal opinion, interpreting the plaque as a product of its time would be more instructive than seeking to simply erase an aspect of history that makes us uncomfortable.”
But she added that her votes on the panel are “based on an understanding of how the proposed alterations will affect the historic significance and physical integrity of this landmark building.”
From that perspective, she said, the removal of a plaque installed in 1964 “will have little to no effect on the architectural fabric of the State House and will not diminish the outstanding historic significance of the building.”
Jones thanked the panel for an “important vote… to remove this confederate-sympathizing plaque.”
“We have made great strides to reflect the importance of African-Americans in our State’s history over the past year with the addition of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass statues, which more accurately reflect this time period,” she added.
“While this is a symbolic step in our efforts to create my systemic equality, it is an important one so that all Marylanders feel welcome in their State House.”