Douglass to get place by Easton courthouse

After bitter civic debate, memorial to abolitionist will go up by those to vets

March 17, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON - The monuments on the courthouse lawn to Confederate heroes and soldiers who fought in Vietnam will soon be joined by a statue of Talbot County's most famous native son, Frederick Douglass - ending a bitter civic debate that provoked suggestions of racism against some who declared that the site belonged only to military memorials.

The County Council voted 3-2 yesterday to allow a tribute to Douglass on the lawn of the 210- year-old building, a spot veterans groups had insisted was "sacred ground" reserved for those who had served in the military.

Advocates had countered that a memorial to the famed abolitionist would help offset the granite monument to "The Talbot Boys," 84 county residents who fought for the Confederacy.

Though both sides had been careful to keep the debate civil, the disagreement had threatened to reopen old wounds.

"This has not been a healthy debate," said Council President Philip Carey Foster, who cast the deciding vote. "This issue has so polarized our community that people are afraid to express an opinion for fear of being labeled a racist or unpatriotic. I can't think of a decision that has bothered me more or kept me awake more."

The council's vote came amid mounting pressure to grant the county historical society's request to put the monument at the courthouse, rather than the library or some other place.

In the past week, Talbot County's Democratic Central Committee joined its Republican counterpart in backing the courthouse site. Easton's Town Council went on record with its support Monday night.

The Talbot chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had obtained a permit for a protest march to the courthouse on Sunday in the event the council had ruled against placing the monument there, President Walter Chase said yesterday.

"Think about today if we had someone who fought against the U.S. government," Chase said. "They might be called terrorists now. But here we had the `Talbot Boys.'"

A scathing editorial in yesterday's Easton Star Democrat pointed to race as an underlying issue in the debate. It was rebuked by all five council members, who are white.

"The racial overtones are the politics of the past," said Councilwoman Hillary Spence, who supported the courthouse site.

A week ago, dozens of veterans from local VFW, American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America posts crammed the council chambers.

Yesterday, most stayed away. The ruling seemed anticlimactic, said Richard M. Cross, a Vietnam veteran who holds leadership positions in all three organizations.

"We knew the racial issue was bound to come up and it shouldn't, because skin color isn't an issue for veterans," said Cross, who supported a proposal to erect a Douglass monument at the county's central library in Easton or a new branch planned in St. Michaels, where Douglass spent his youth.

"We're discouraged. Nobody gives a damn what the veteran has given," Cross said. "I don't agree with this decision, but here is democracy at its finest."

Councilman Thomas G. Duncan, a veteran and former Talbot County sheriff, directed some of his remarks to Spec. 4 Stephen Grafton, a county native and Army paratrooper who served in Iraq and was presented with a proclamation of honor from the council yesterday.

"Thank God, you showed up today in the vertical position," said Duncan, who a week ago was near tears during a hearing on what has become known as "the courthouse issue."

"To honor these men with a special place is the ultimate," Duncan said. He displayed a portrait of his grandson, who is serving in the Marine Corps. "They didn't have the chance to be a statesman, to be president or anything else. I'm ashamed at the way veterans are being treated in Talbot County."

Douglass, who was born a slave near Easton, was held in a jail next to the courthouse as a young man after a failed escape. In 1878, by then a world-renowned orator, writer and statesman, he returned in triumph to the county seat to deliver an address.

Historical society volunteers began reviewing sites for a Douglass memorial two years ago. They preferred the court house as the most prominent place in the county, where 16 percent of residents are black. Society members met after the vote to discuss the design of the memorial and how to pay for it.

"The courthouse lawn is in the center of things, the place where people go," said Moonyene Jackson-Amis, a council member who has been a leader in the debate. "The courthouse stands for justice, equal justice. We wanted permanence as well as prominence."

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