Democrats on House Committee Vote to Repeal ‘Maryland, My Maryland’ as an Official State Symbol

The Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Maryland’s state song could be on the road to repeal.

The House Health and Government Operations Committee voted in favor of a bill from Speaker Pro Tem Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Lower Shore) that would remove “Maryland, My Maryland” as an official state symbol.

The vote, taken during a virtual meeting on Monday afternoon, was along party lines, with the committee’s seven Republicans voting against the repeal.

The nine-verse song, which was written as a poem during the Civil War by James Ryder Randall, a Baltimore native and Confederate sympathizer living in Louisiana, has enjoyed its status as a state symbol since 1939. Typically unsung verses of the song refer to ‘Northern scum’ and to President Abraham Lincoln as a despot and tyrant, though any public performances of the song have fallen out of favor in the last several years.

House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) said Monday that she was offended by portions of the song that call Lincoln ― the first Republican to occupy the White House ― a despot and use the words that John Wilkes Booth shouted after Lincoln’s assassination, but decided not to support repeal.

“We have a lot of cancel culture going on, and we’re canceling everything,” Szeliga said.

In coming to her decision to oppose the bill, Szeliga said she reflected on her own personal heroes of the past.

“You know, David from the Old Testament ― who committed adultery and then had Bathsheba’s husband killed ― we didn’t cancel him out of the Bible, but showed that that’s a man with flaws,” Szeliga said. “So I’d like to relegate this song to history, but I’m not going to be able to vote to repeal it.”

Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City), along with other Democrats present at the meeting, voted in favor of repeal.

“It is not cancel culture to say our state should not be represented, should not be honoring these words, as our state song,” Rosenberg said.

Del. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick), who has sponsored repeal efforts in the past, noted that the song actually took on its status as a state symbol during “one of the most racist periods in Maryland.”

In 1935, Gov. Harry W. Nice, who opposed the song’s “objectionable verses,” vetoed legislation to make it a state symbol. After Nice lost re-election, Gov. Herbert R. O’Conor signed the bill into law in 1939.

There have been at least 10 attempts to repeal the designation since. Lawmakers have introduced bills to repeal the song in 1974, 1980, 1984, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020. None passed both chambers.

In past years, debate over repeal has gotten hung up on designating a replacement, Lewis Young said. This year’s bill avoids that debate by simply repealing the symbol.

“Now’s our opportunity,” Lewis Young said. “…There are some symbols in our history that must go.”

Del. Susan W. Krebs (R-Carroll) lamented how long the committee has spent debating the song’s status in the past.

“The amount of time that we have spent and the energy spent on this just blows my mind. And I think we should start looking forward to finding solutions to problems versus keep looking in the past, figuring out what people said 50 years ago, 100 years ago,” Krebs said. “It really doesn’t matter. Let’s move forward and just do something positive because it’s not really helping anybody. I don’t think anything’s gonna change for anyone when the song changes because we don’t use it anywhere anyway.”

A cross-filed bill by Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who is sponsoring legislation to repeal the song for a third time, is set for a Thursday hearing in the Senate, which has embraced changes to the song’s status in recent years.

A 2016 bill – sponsored by Sens. Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick) and Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) as well as Kagan – sought to address the offensive portions of the song by revising it, merging lyrics from the original and an 1894 poem by John T. White, also entitled “Maryland, My Maryland.” It cleared the Senate, but failed to get further than a House hearing.

In 2018, Kagan was lead sponsor of a compromise bill to designate the current state song as the “historical state song” which also passed the Senate before receiving an unfavorable report in the House Health and Government Operations Committee.

The House bill could come to the floor as early as Tuesday.

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