March 6, 2021

Talbot County's fierce debate over its monuments and history

America's debate over what should be remembered, venerated, and suppressed is particularly intense in Talbot County on Maryland's Eastern Shore. A former slaveholding area, its allegiances were split during the Civil War with soldiers from the county fighting on both sides of America's bloodiest conflict and, in a twist of fate, colliding with one another brutally on Culp's Hill at Gettysburg.

Fifty years after Robert E. Lee's surrender to the Union forces, a monument commemorating the soldiers from Talbot County who fought for the Confederate States of America was erected on the southern side of the entrance to the county's courthouse. No monument to Talbot's Union soldiers has ever been erected, although there are monuments to the veterans of other wars in front of the courthouse.

Talbot Boys, Talbot County Courthouse, Easton, MD

In 2011, a statue of Frederick Douglass was dedicated and placed on the northern side of walkway to the entrance of the courthouse near the pole carrying both the American and Maryland flags. That it was done should be no surprise. Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, and he lived there for ten of the first twenty years of his life. After securing his freedom, he used his experiences in the county to make his case against the evils of slavery and for the imperative for racial justice. Yet despite being one of the nineteenth century's most influential figures and Talbot's best known native son, many in the county would rather avoid acknowledging both him and his contributions. It took several years to overcome opposition to building the monument, with the County's Commission grudgingly granting permission by a vote of three to two in 2004.

Since the Charlottesville church massacre, there has been a vigorous debate in Talbot County over whether to move the Talbot Boys monument, one that has captured considerable media attention. For example, there have been articles in the Baltimore Sun, New Yorker, Atlantic, and Washington Post. Locally, there is constant discussion of it before the Talbot County Commissioners and in the county's two newspapers, The Talbot Spy and the Star Democrat. Positions have hardened, and virtually everyone in the county has a formed opinion on the matter.

While working on a project regarding Frederick Douglass, I happened to meet a neighbor who is a former senior editor of the Wall Street Journal and an incredibly good writer, someone whose reporting I had read and enjoyed for years, Neil King Jr. He shared with me an opinion piece that he had written about how we struggle to remember significant historic events, and we decided to collaborate on a project featuring it which ran in The Spy today. Click here for the story.

In doing the photography for the piece, I spent time in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill studying the Emancipation Memorial which is discussed in it. Two of the images I made there were featured in The Spy story, and I'm including four below in this post.

It is worth giving this work a long look. Adjectives to describe it are difficult to articulate, but three that come to mind are creepy, demeaning, and revolting. Be sure to notice the use of George Washington's profile in the work.

The Emancipation Memorial was unveiled on April 14, 1876, eleven years after the day Lincoln died. Frederick Douglass delivered the keynote address at its dedication to a crowd of more than 25,000, including President Ulysses S. Grant, his cabinet, and members of Congress.

As Douglass's biographer David Blight writes in making his case against tearing the memorial down, he agrees that yes, "It was and is a racist image." But he cautions, "The $20,000 used to build the monument had been raised among black Americans, most of them former slaves." He goes on to provide additional information setting the monument in the context of its time and the support it had from the African American community in its dedication.

Blight, like others, urges an additive approach to the treatment of memorials to historic events. With respect to Lincoln Park and its statuary, he believes artists should be engaged to represent the story of the struggle to achieve freedom, recognizing that this memorial represents latter nineteenth century sensibilities. It should be viewed as one of several examples in teaching how our nation's values have evolved and should continue evolving. A statue memorializing educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune erected in 1974, for example, stands nearby.

Whether you agree or not with that approach, it is worth spending an hour at the Emancipation Memorial, looking at it from a variety of angles, and thinking about the time in which it was built, what had gone on before, what has transpired since, and, most importantly, what still needs to come.

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