A historical battle over Maryland statues

Lawmakers want to add Harriet Tubman to Capitol collection

February 22, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

A battle of historic proportions is shaping up in the Maryland General Assembly.

On one side: admirers of Harriet Tubman, the Eastern Shore woman who famously helped slaves travel to freedom on the Underground Railroad. On the other: fans of John Hanson, a son of Southern Maryland and president of the Continental Congress, a precursor to the government of the United States.

Maryland, one of the original 13 colonies and rich in history, typically embraces all of its notable figures. But this time, the state must choose.

On Wednesday, Senate and House committees are scheduled to hear a proposal to swap Tubman for Hanson in the National Statuary Hall Collection of the U.S. Capitol. Each state may contribute two statues to the collection. Since 1903, Maryland has been represented by Hanson and Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

"What you have now is a line being drawn in the sand," said Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who counts Hanson among his distant relatives. "How do you honor and recognize one person without disrespecting another?"

A decade ago, Congress asked the states to consider updating their statues to reflect more diversity and recent history. Three states have responded with new statues, adding Dwight D. Eisenhower, Helen Keller and Ronald Reagan to the collection.

Making Maryland's choice more poignant: Hanson, like many Southern landowners of the 18th century, owned slaves.

Tubman would be the 10th woman in the collection and the first African-American. Gov. Martin O'Malley supports the effort, which has been led by the state's women legislators.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, an amateur historian who stands to the right of a likeness of Hanson every day in the Senate chamber, calls such a trade "completely unacceptable."

"You don't take down history," Miller said. "You add to it."

If the Tubman legislation is approved and signed into law, Maryland would begin the process of commissioning a statue, which must be bronze or marble and has height and weight requirements established by Congress.

Statues added recently to the Capitol collection have cost more than $250,000; a Tubman statue would be funded privately.

For almost a year, the Maryland chapters of the National Organization for Women and Equal Visibility Everywhere have been lobbying for Tubman. Del. Susan Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat who has sponsored the legislation, said she feels "swelling support" for the effort among minority, women's and Eastern Shore groups.

"She is the ultimate icon historically for women," said Linda Mahoney, Maryland NOW president. "She is the shining star."

Born into slavery in Dorchester County circa 1820, Tubman worked for several masters before her escape in 1849 to Pennsylvania, then a free state. But she returned to Maryland time and time again, helping to lead dozens of slaves to freedom through the network of hideouts and safe houses that came to be known as the Underground Railroad.

She also worked as a Union spy during the Civil War. After the war, she fought for women's rights and founded a charitable home for the elderly and the poor.

Lee, head of the House women's caucus, remembers learning about Tubman in school.

"You read about her exploits and think, 'Wow, a woman did this. A slave did this,'" she said. "We should be beaming with pride that she's a Marylander. She is a true American hero."

O'Malley told the women legislators this year that he likes the idea of seeing Tubman in the U.S. Capitol.

"Harriet Tubman was one of Maryland's great trailblazers who reminds us of our state's heritage and the history and strength of our nation. It would be a great tribute to her life and legacy to have a statue of her in the National Statuary Hall," the Democratic governor said in a statement.

Other high-profile Tubman backers include Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker.

But Hanson has his own vocal and high-profile admirers. While Tubman's achievements are remarkable, they say, she should not replace one of the country's founding fathers.

Born in 1715, Hanson became a merchant and delegate to the Second Continental Congress. He lost two sons in the Revolutionary War. He was the third president of the Congress of the Confederation, and the first elected to a one-year term, as specified by the Articles of Confederation.

"You can't just elbow him out of Statuary Hall," said Peter Michael, a descendant of Hanson. "It's just not the way to do it."

Michael is uniquely positioned to appreciate both historical figures. He is president of the John Hanson Memorial Association, which raised half of the $100,000 for a Hanson memorial in Frederick County scheduled to open this year. The state put up the other half.

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