Opinion

Liberate history instead of hiding it in a box

Visitors to Rockville, Maryland’s Red Brick Courthouse this month have been confronted by a strange sight – a bronze statue of a soldier surrounded by a box so tall that only his head and shoulders peek out above the wooden walls. This is Montgomery County’s short-term solution to a problem that spans decades: What to do with Confederate monuments erected to honor those who died in the name of slavery?

The statue was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913. It depicts a generic Confederate soldier and asks viewers “that we through life may not forget to love the thin gray line” of rebels on the march. Last month, someone spray-painted the words “Black Lives Matter” on it – hence the box, and hence the added attention that has led many to call for the statue’s removal.

With its base, the statue weighs 20,000 pounds. That is just the first logistical roadblock to its relocation. Given the statue’s historic designation, officials would also have to petition the Rockville Historic District Commission before they could take it away. Maybe they shouldn’t.

Some county officials say the statue is a vestige of a neo-Confederate campaign to claim Maryland’s history. They’re right. After the Civil War, Confederate sympathizers used their influence to put up rebel memorials, ignoring the facts that Maryland never seceded, that in 1864 it passed a constitution barring slavery, that thousands of Marylanders lost their lives fighting to maintain the Union, and that after the war many in the state resisted efforts to subjugate black people and celebrate the Confederacy. Yet today’s efforts to remove the monument distort history also by whitewashing it rather than painting it Confederate gray. Maryland was, after all, a slave state. Some 20,000 of its citizens joined the Confederate army, and others within its borders supported the rebel cause.

The statue – on historic grounds, with historic designation and under the protection of a historic commission – is a window into Maryland’s complicated past. And the way to handle a complicated past is not to make it simpler; it’s to display it in all its dimensions, however painful some of them may be. In Rockville, Maryland has a chance to give a local response to a national question and to set an example for other states to follow.

One way would be to put new faces alongside the statue – faces of the Marylanders who condemned slavery and strove for equality. Add context to the memorial, with placards explaining where the state started and where it ended up, rather than tearing it down. In Maryland as elsewhere, it is better to learn from history than to hide it in a box.

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