Baltimore mayor on Confederate statues: 'Why should people have to feel that pain every day?'

The base of what was once the Jackson-Lee monument, a Confederate statue that city workers removed overnight from Wyman Park in Baltimore.
The base of what was once the Jackson-Lee monument, a Confederate statue that city workers removed overnight from Wyman Park in Baltimore. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

What happens overnight can take years to unfold. And after months of impassioned public debate, a special taskforce and a unanimous city council vote, residents of Baltimore woke up last Wednesday morning to a city cleansed of its Confederate monuments.

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Violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, had galvanized public opinion in favor of removing the monuments, but the decision to do so came down to one person: Catherine Pugh, who took office as the city’s mayor in January.

“The charter says that if at any time I, as the chief executive of the city, feel that her city is in need of protection or in danger, I have a responsibility to protect the people of my city,” Pugh told the Guardian.

Baltimore’s protection took the form of a tight-lipped, overnight operation in which twin equestrian statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee, along with monuments to Confederate sailors and soldiers, Confederate women and the former supreme court justice Roger B Taney, were removed from their pedestals and loaded onto flatbed trucks before sunrise.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh talks about the late night removal of four confederate statues in the city, on August 16, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland.
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Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh talks about the late night removal of four confederate statues in the city, on August 16, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“On Monday morning, I laid out for the president of the city council how we were proceeding,” Pugh said. “The contractor and I had already decided that nobody needed to know the exact time at which we were going to remove those monuments, because we didn’t want to incur any backlash, protest or violence.”

Pugh, who also discussed the plan with the city’s police commission but was advised to attract as little attention as possible, met with her deputy director of economic development on Tuesday evening at 11.30pm.

“We had already planned to remove them late at night, after the news went off,” said Pugh, who was notified by the city’s attorney that taking swift action was within the scope of her executive powers to safeguard the city from unwanted confrontation. “What was cool about it was that we figured if we got started by midnight we would be finished by 5am. The last statue was loaded onto the flatbed at 4.57.”

A monument of Taney, the supreme court justice who oversaw the 1857 Dred Scott case declaring that black people could not be American citizens, was to Pugh particularly disgraceful: “How does a statue like that, a supreme court judge who oversaw the Dred Scott case, even exist? Why does someone like that even deserve a statue? Why should people have to feel that kind of pain every day?”

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Donald Trump, at a press conference last Tuesday, peddled a common talking point of defenders of the monuments, telling reporters that their removal constituted the erasure of history. But Pugh disagreed.

“It’s not what the president says, it’s what the statues themselves represent,” Pugh explained. “This is an opportunity to look at our history and say, ‘Are we missing something?’ Should we be showing the world another side of our history, like the first African American supreme court justice, or the first African American elected mayor of a city, Kurt Schmoke, or a great congressman, Parren James Mitchell, who served us nationally and encouraged economic opportunity?”

Pugh’s predecessor in office, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, had convened a taskforce to consider ways in which the city’s monuments could be removed. In a 34-page report, the commission recommended the removal of two of the statues as opposed to all four, but by the time Pugh took office each remained in place.

Following the Charlottesville violence, in which a demonstrator protesting white supremacists was killed in a car attack, the city council voted unanimously to remove the monuments and Pugh accelerated the process.

While some criticized Pugh’s plan as unnecessarily stealth, the response from her constituents has been been overwhelmingly positive, she said.

A monument dedicated to the Confederate Women of Maryland lies on a flatbed trailer near the intersection of Charles Street and University Parkway early Wednesday morning, after it was taken down.
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A monument dedicated to the Confederate Women of Maryland lies on a flatbed trailer near the intersection of Charles Street and University Parkway early Wednesday morning, after it was taken down. Photograph: ddp USA/Rex/Shutterstock

Pugh read a letter she had received from a teenage boy named Brian, who has a white father and a black mother. “I wanted you to know how much it means to me personally that the leader of our city is not only willing to acknowledge the perpetuation of hatred, but also actively take part in making a change,” he wrote. “Hopefully one day, when my little brown boy or girl is growing up in Baltimore, they will not have to look at symbols of oppression as laudable.”

To critics who said the removal had happened too suddenly, she replied: “The public has spoken.”

“I think you will see people mimic the process that we did,” Pugh said. “Better to do it when folks are not in your presence to keep down the rhetoric, to keep the peace.”

On Monday morning, peace was momentarily interrupted when a 225-year-old obelisk of Christopher Columbus was vandalized with a sledgehammer. Below it, a sign read, “Racism: Tear it Down.” But others have already followed Pugh’s lead. Four Confederate statues were removed from the campus at University of Texas at Austin last weekend.

As Baltimoreans strolled by Wyman Place and University Parkway, the empty pedestals symbolized a belated victory, a burden having been lifted. Last Wednesday morning, beside the base where the Lee-Jackson memorial stood just hours before, activists placed a statue called “Madre Luz”, depicting a pregnant black woman, her right fist raised in defiance.

“Things change pretty quickly overnight,” Pugh said, apropos of nothing in particular. “I’m optimistic about the future of our city.”

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By Rachel Ncube 08/22/2017 10:24:00
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