Long-ignored memorial makes a prominent move

New home chosen for statue honoring black soldiers

January 13, 2007|By GREGORY KANE

At high noon yesterday, motorists heading north on Calvert Street as they approached Lexington Street could not help but notice the clanging and banging as workers labored to move the large bronze statue.

It is probably the most attention the monument has received in its 30-plus years at the north end of Battle Monument Plaza, which sits in the middle of the 100 block of N. Calvert St.

For years, the 13-foot-tall statue, which is dedicated to black soldiers, stood facing north on Calvert. And for years, it was regarded by some Baltimoreans as a statue that faced the wrong way on a one-way street.

Yesterday, the statue was moved to a new site in War Memorial Plaza near City Hall. Now, more people will be able to read its plaque, which reads "Dedicated to the memory of the Negro heroes of the United States. `Sleep in peace, slain in thy country's wars.' A gift to the City of Baltimore by an anonymous donor. Sculptor James E. Lewis 1971."

If you ever drove north on Calvert Street and did not notice the statue of a black soldier holding a wreath, no one could blame you. When I drive around the monument, my attention is focused on making sure no one crashes into me when the traffic merges at Lexington Street. For that reason, I suspect that few motorists noticed the statue. And others saw it in their mirrors and had no idea what it was.

That might be what inspired Del. Clarence Davis, a member of several veterans organizations, to write a letter to Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"The African American Patriots Consortium Inc.," Davis wrote, "after considerable consultation with other veterans' organizations, voted unanimously to request that the Monument to the Black Soldier be moved from its current location at Lexington and Calvert Streets to the newly renovated War Memorial Plaza. Further, we urge your expeditious response to this request."

O'Malley responded expeditiously. Bill Pencek, the director of Baltimore City Heritage Area, which is part of O'Malley's administration, said there were the matters of what contractor would move the monument, at what price, and where that money would come from. But once those issues were resolved, the base for the monument went up at War Memorial Plaza last week. The truck holding the monument pulled into the street between War Memorial Plaza and City Hall at 12:56 p.m. yesterday.

The statue's sculptor, James E. Lewis, was an art professor and chairman of the art department at Morgan State University. Pencek said the "anonymous donor" was a family from the Midwest whose identity remains unknown. That family commissioned Lewis "to do a monument to Negro war heroes," Pencek said. "Lewis did it on the condition that the monument be placed in Baltimore."

That placement did not come easily.

"There was a lot of public debate about where the monument should go," Pencek said. He may have understated the matter.

"No work of Dr. Lewis' was more controversial than his 1972 sculpture, the `Black Soldier,' " noted a Sun editorial of Aug. 12, 1997. "Its placement in Battle Monument Plaza was opposed by critics who thought the statue was inappropriate at a memorial to those who fought in the 1814 Battle of North Point or argued that no more tributes to the military were needed at all."

The statue has gone by many names. In numerous Sun articles about Lewis, the man, it is "Black Soldier." In one article it was the "Negro Soldier Monument." Davis referred to it as the "the Monument to the Black Soldier" in his July letter to O'Malley.

A House of Delegates resolution dated May 21, 1973, called it the "Black Soldier Memorial Statue." Yesterday, Pencek,said the official name of the monument is the "Negro War Heroes Monument."

Whatever the name of his work, Lewis "was very pleased with the outcome" when the monument was finally placed in the Battle Monument Plaza, according to Pencek. But that may have only been because for a while it looked like the monument would not be placed at all.

Pencek said Lewis' widow (he died in 1997) and his son James E. Lewis Jr. both approved of relocating the monument to the War Memorial Plaza.

So did Sam Snowden, a worker on O'Malley's CitiStat team who served five years in the Air Force from 1961 to 1966.

"I hope we live up to it," Snowden said as he watched workers move the monument from the truck to its new base at War Memorial Plaza. "Symbolism is one thing. But I hope we live up to it."

Whether we do or not, the consensus seems to be that the monument is finally in its rightful place.

"Now it will be more prominent," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, "in the place where it should have been all along."

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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