Left as cold as the bronze figure of a Confederate soldier in a Lothian cornfield


June 20, 1999|By Norris West

I WAS PREPARED to get angry as I approached the Lothian church where a statue had been erected to honor a Confederate soldier.

I was sure that I would be outraged over someone having the audacity in 1999, in Maryland, to honor someone who fought for the South's "right" to maintain the peculiar institution of slavery, although similar tributes have caused discomfort in this region in recent years, from Howard County to Virginia.

The people behind these testimonials will try to convince you that the South did not fight for slavery, but for states' rights.

Scrap over magnolia fields

What Old South sympathizers don't say is that no "states' right" defined the South's way of life more than its "right" to hold humans in bondage. They make it sound like the Civil War was a scrap over magnolia fields.

It is amazing how revisionists attempt to minimize the horrors and brutality of slavery after all these years.

Although movies, narratives and television have shed light on this dark part of our nation's past, some people remain almost nostalgic for pre-Civil War Southern life.

Those sentiments motivated some individuals in Anne Arundel County to raise $60,000 to build a statue honoring Benjamin Welch Owens, a Confederate private.

I visited Lothian last week to get a glimpse at the statue -- and, I figured, to get furious.

`Thermopylae of the War'

The stern-faced figure in bronze overlooks Route 408 from the lawn of Mount Calvary Southern Episcopal Church, holding a cannon wheel with his left hand and grasping a cannonball rammer with his right.

"Private Owens of the 1st Maryland Artillery Confederate States of America, performed heroically at the Battle of Stephenson's Depot," the inscription reads, in part.

"Owens, born and raised in West River, Anne Arundel County, Maryland, single-handedly held off the Union forces, continually firing his cannon after his compatriots had been wounded. Gen. Robert E. Lee would call this battle `The Thermopylae of the War,' " a reference to Spartan valiance against an invasion by a vast Persian army in 480 B.C.

A valiant fighter is indeed someone to honor when that person fought for justice, such as independence from the British. Or to liberate a continent overtaken by a ruthless regime. But to honor a Confederate soldier is to pay tribute to someone who fought for an unjust, inhumane system.

The statue's inscription says Owens "represented all the Maryland boys who fought `a war of ideas, political conceptions, and loyalty to ancient ideals of English freedom.' "

This absurd interpretation turns history on its head, yet my anger still would not come.

Perhaps that is because I take satisfaction from knowing that the South lost the war, lost the "right" to keep Africans and African-Americans in chains and, later, the "right" to adopt Jim Crow laws.

The tribute to Owens is but a tribute to a losing soldier for oppression.

As the statue worshipers look back, the rest of us look to a nation that has made much progress in race relations.

African-Americans have gained opportunity in government, commerce, education and culture. Southern cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte have helped lead the way. Some of these achievements were tallied in a recent Newsweek cover story.

A huge gap still exists between what is and what ought to be. Discrimination and a lack of self-determination have conspired to keep African-Americans far behind whites in education, housing and general prosperity.

The same week as the magazine article, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a study supporting charges that racial profiling causes police to stop African-American motorists for "driving while black."

It was good to hear County Executive Janet S. Owens make it clear that Anne Arundel County government did not endorse the statue of her ancestor, even if she felt a personal tie.

But Ms. Owens can demonstrate what the county stands for beyond her laudible decision to eliminate the county's volunteer road cleanup program rather than let the Ku Klux Klan join it.

No black department heads

Anne Arundel, like the nation, still has a long way to go. Owens' administration, for example, has no black department heads in a county that is 15 percent African-American.

Ms. Owens should also examine the county's minority business program to ascertain whether the county has been fair to African-American companies seeking government contracts.

A Confederate statue and the sophistry surrounding it are meaningless when leaders of government and private industry forge ahead to build better race relations and equality.

The real time to get angry is when the progress ends.

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. He can be reached by e-mail at nwest@baltsun.com

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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