Veterans pack hearing on abolitionist's statue

Talbot Co. lawn reserved for military past, they say

March 10, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON - Alarmed at plans for a statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass outside the courthouse here, dozens of VFW, American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America members packed an emotional hearing yesterday to insist that the shady lawn of the 210-year-old building remain as it always has - a place of honor reserved only for those who served in the military.

"Our tradition in this county says this is sacred ground for veterans, and that's the way we want to keep it," said Rick Cross, who is active in all three veterans groups. "The man deserves recognition here in his home county, but he was not a soldier."

The veterans, decked out with campaign pins atop their service caps, squared off against civil rights leaders, historic preservationists and others who wore political-style "Fred's Army" buttons in support of a Douglass memorial.

Such a monument, advocates say, would help offset a granite tribute to Confederate soldiers that has sat on the lawn for nearly a century.

"That Confederate monument is a constant reminder of slavery," Walter Chase, who served as Easton's first black police chief, said later. "I see no reason why Douglass shouldn't be there on that lawn."

Two hours of testimony about the proposed statue, in which some spectators were forced to stand outside in a hall, left Talbot County Council members visibly shaken and pleading for more time to decide a debate that some say is bound to open old racial wounds in this Eastern Shore community.

"This is the most emotional issue in my 5 1/2 years on the council," said Councilwoman Hillary Spence, who joined her four colleagues in voting to put off a decision until Tuesday. "I'll admit I'm completely conflicted on this. I need another week."

Cross and other veterans group leaders said they support the move to honor Douglass as long as it is not at the courthouse, where war dead from Korea and Vietnam are honored along with the "Talbot Boys" of the Confederacy.

Councilman Thomas G. Duncan says he would support a Douglass memorial at any other location. He fought back tears yesterday as an assistant ran a computer presentation celebrating U.S. soldiers.

"It is my firm belief that the courthouse should be reserved for those who served in our wars," said Duncan, who wore an American flag tie and lapel pin. "This issue is not about the color of our skin. What this is about is the brotherhood when we take up arms to serve our country."

Councilwoman Hope R. Harrington, who says she supports the courthouse site, praised yesterday's speakers for maintaining a civil tone.

"I don't know anyone in Talbot County who doesn't want to honor Frederick Douglass," Harrington said. "The only issue is where to place that memorial. I can see great merit in everyone's position."

Former police chief Chase, who heads the county Democratic Central Committee, has been a leader in the push for a Douglass monument. He complains that the council has never had any written policy stating what monuments are permissible.

The county's Republican Central Committee, which is backing a move to alter county political boundaries to create a council district with a majority of black voters, supports the courthouse location.

"It's clearly a racial issue," said Brad Miller, a member of the GOP panel. "I don't mean the council is motivated by race, but for the black community, it's an issue of utmost importance."

But James Hollis, who is black, testified that he is opposed to the courthouse as a site for the Douglass memorial - in part because it was the center of Easton's slave market before the Civil War.

"This is 2004 and black people shouldn't have to walk by that [Confederate] statue every day," Hollis said.

The push for a Douglass monument began two years ago with a panel appointed by the county historical society. Douglass, who was born in Talbot County, as a young man was held in jail next to the courthouse for trying to escape slavery.

"Throughout the country, the courthouse square is where people put their native sons who have done something in the world, contributed to this world," said Anne Stalfort, a member of the historical society committee.

Some among the 30 or more speakers yesterday argued that St. Michaels would be a more appropriate place, since Douglass spent much of his youth as a slave there before escaping to freedom in 1838.

Others testified that the statue should be erected at the county's main library branch in Easton or at a new library planned in St. Michaels.

Dick Orrell, a veteran who served in Korea and Vietnam, said he doesn't care where a Douglass monument is placed.

"I'm not opposed to either location," Orrell said. "This man was a national figure, an international figure who ought to be recognized in his own county."

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