Baltimore needs different statues

City Diary: Matthew Buck

January 31, 2001|By Matthew Buck

House hunting on a bright Saturday afternoon in mid-January, the welcome first thaw of winter, my wife and I parked on Wyman Park Drive adjacent to Johns Hopkins University to scope out a three-bedroom townhouse six doors up from the corner at 29th Street where my great-grandparents bought their first home in 1924.

We strolled down the sidewalk, peering across handsome porches into front windows for glimpses of inside living space, our steps determined and confident, our heads filled with the ignorant bliss that comes from being in the minority of young, idealistic, prospective buyers in north Baltimore seeking property within city limits where taxes are too high, schools too poor and services too lacking.

All thoughts of houses and mortgages, my principal distraction of the moment, faded quickly when a gathering across the street, under the large statue at the south end of Wyman Park dedicated to Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, caught my eye.

As I dodged southbound traffic and reached the east side of Howard Street, I had the disorienting sensation of decidedly backward time-travel.

I was suddenly surrounded by men with muskets dressed in the standard Southern military issue of, oh, about 1861.

I desperately wanted to strike up a conversation with one or two of this congress of gray uniforms and slouch hats, but hesitated. Except for the 21st-century traffic whizzing all around us, the somber, quiet mood of the small crowd now forming in front of the two generals felt eerily like the tone at a funeral.

The next mourner to join us carried in one hand a dazzling wreath of carnations and, in the other, an authentic battle flag from the Army of Northern Virginia. After laying them before the monument he knelt, his head bowed in prayer.

Before this little pageant could become more weird, my characteristically slow brain delivered the specific context for what I was aching to interpret and decode.

I had noticed it in a community-events blurb in the City Paper the previous week. Today was Jackson-Lee Day, when the combined birthdays of both Confederate generals are commemorated across the South. Evidently, in this arguably most northern of southern towns, the tradition is in full swing.

One gentleman in the group, his hair mussed and face bearded like a soldier on extended march, stood vigilant, as if at attention before his leaders in war. I made small talk with him about the nice weather, to which he replied that most years it is so cold he is shaking in his boots on this day, at this place.

I paused, realizing that one might be interested enough to return year after year to honor, in the flesh, two men who had fought on the wrong side of a 140-year-old conflict.

Soon after I decided not to share this insight with him, my new, unacquainted friend informed me that he had been standing in the same spot all night long. When I asked whatever for, he explained that "they" had splattered paint on the monument last year at this time.

With that, the tired soldier shoved off down the sidewalk to his car and, I presume, home for a rest, secure in the knowledge that he had prevented similar desecration from occurring this year.

And there I stood, amid sputtering votive candles and bouquets of flowers and two Confederates, warriors for a cause that has left cities like Baltimore, from whose ground their handsome statue rises, with a terrible legacy of racial segregation and division from which it still hasn't fully recovered.

How is it possible, I thought, that in 2001, a person would brave freezing temperatures all night to ensure that a monument commemorating more than a century old deeds not be vandalized to spite that commemoration? And all of this on the eve of the national remembrance of one of freedom's greatest fighters of all time, Martin Luther King Jr.

As I shuffled back to the car and more crisscrossing of neighborhoods, I couldn't help but conclude we would be better off if Baltimore got busy erecting monuments in parks to heroes like King. They could be alongside or, perhaps, in place of symbols of a past in which the most horrid crime was not the early deaths of hundreds of thousands of young men, but rather the enslavement and oppression of an entire people.

Then just maybe far larger crowds than the one I participated in that day might gather together to pledge to its heroes and to each other a lifetime of working toward freedom, harmony and equality for all citizens.

Today's writer

Matthew Buck teaches social studies at the Gilman School and also is a free-lance writer.

City Diary produces a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods.

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