Civil War sculpture remembers ancestor of Arundel executive

Confederate statue raises issues of slavery, history

June 10, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

In the hometown of Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, where residents have roots that stretch back three centuries, the Civil War still feels recent enough that there's room to honor its heroes with monuments.

So next week in Lothian, in a private ceremony next to a small white-clapboard church, a group of Owens' friends and closest advisers will do just that. But the sentimental gesture won't be enjoyed by all, because the life-sized bronze sculpture they will unveil along Route 408 honors a Confederate soldier.

The idea that she and other elected officials will join in tribute to a Confederate has some blacks in the community sore, and has forced Owens onto a narrow and risky political path. By supporting her friends and advisers -- who paid for a sculpture that celebrates Pvt. Benjamin Welch Owens, one of her ancestors -- she risks upsetting a key constituency.

"She's in a very sensitive position," said one county official. "A step in either direction will offend someone."

In an interview this week, Owens declared her personal support for the tribute, but said her first objective was to make clear that Anne Arundel County did not endorse it. The statue was paid for with about $60,000 in privately raised funds, and championed by William F. Chaney, Owens' lifelong friend and close political adviser.

While the county executive distances her public persona from the sculpture, private citizen Owens said she applauds the tribute and plans to attend the June 19 unveiling.

"You can't deny your history," said Owens, whose family arrived in southern Anne Arundel in the late 1600s and, like most in the area, was loyal to the Confederates during the Civil War. "I think the more we talk about it and explore the good and the bad, the healthier it is for everyone."

That history includes the heroics of Private Owens, who stood alone during the Battle of Stephenson's Depot 136 years ago, fending off attackers as his Confederate comrades lay dead and wounded around him.

Owens and a host of Arundel politicians who approve of the tribute, including State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and former Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer, call it fitting, long-overdue recognition for an act of tremendous courage. And it can be simply that, they say, without standing as a tacit endorsement of slavery.

But not everyone accepts that notion.

Neither the working-class blacks in Lothian, some of whom live a few hundred yards from the sculpture, nor the Civil War historians at the nation's top universities, are prepared to divorce Confederates from the reviled institution they fought to preserve.

Last week in Richmond, Va., protests over this question led the city to take down a portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee because some found it offensive. Last year, some Howard County residents rallied against the rededication of a Confederate monument in Ellicott City.

Samuel Gilmer, an Annapolis alderman and the former head of the county's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said of the statue: "They say they're honoring someone who was defending his beliefs, but his beliefs were wrong. No way can I say he has a right to be honored."

Louis Bracy, communications director of the Hanover-based Maryland Forum of African American Leaders, said: "Any kind of tribute to the Confederacy would be celebrating evil, no different than a tribute to the German army."

But to others, like Chaney, the soft-spoken south county man who raised funds for the statue and also served as treasurer for Owens' political campaign, such statements are nothing short of absurd.

"This boy wasn't fighting for slavery," Chaney said of Private Owens. "He was fighting for states' rights and for his country."

Chaney notes that he has support for his statue from within the black community, too.

Leonard Blackshear, a black businessman who is trying to raise funds for a statue of Kunta Kinte, the inspiration for Alex Haley's book "Roots," said he and Chaney share identical goals.

"The key message, which we've been saying for years, is that the strength in the human spirit comes from maintaining pride in one's heritage. We're all committed to the same message."

Another supporter, Michael T. Brown, is a former Marine who heads an Arundel group called the Black Political Forum. He said honoring a valiant soldier is different from honoring a political cause.

Miller, whose district is mostly in Prince George's but includes a slice of southern Anne Arundel, has decorated his office with Civil War memorabilia.

"You'll find monuments to Confederates all throughout Maryland," Miller said. "Some people would view them strictly as Confederate monuments. More practical people would look at them as an important part of our history that needs to be remembered."

And that, in the end, is how Owens views the tribute to her relative, the Confederate private.

"What do I say? I say this is our history," she said. "Let's look at it, let's learn from it. People need to know where they came from."

Pub Date: 6/10/99

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