After nearly two decades of discussion about Frederick’s Roger Brooke Taney statue, words turned into action Thursday as elected officials approved a resolution to move the figure away from City Hall.
The Board of Aldermen’s unanimous decision Thursday sets in motion a process that could lead to removing the small bronze bust from the park outside the North Court Street building, where it has rested for nearly a century.
Removal isn’t guaranteed yet. First, other commissions will be asked for their input on possibly relocating the statue — in the context of both historic preservation and artistic significance.
Since Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak introduced the proposal in August, there has been pointed debate — and, most recently, an act of vandalism. Red paint was poured over the statue this past weekend. The Frederick Police Department is investigating and has released surveillance video frames that appear to show the unidentified culprits.
Kuzemchak advocated for the bust’s removal based on Taney’s role as author of the decision in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Dred Scott v. Sandford case. As the fifth chief justice of the United States, Taney wrote the opinion that African-Americans could not sue in federal court because they were not entitled to the same rights as American citizens.
The bronze bust was built and placed in front of the building in 1931, when the building served as the Frederick County Courthouse, as a tribute to the 20 years Taney spent practicing law in Frederick before moving to more prominent roles.
More than a statue
Supporters and opponents of the resolution said the decision represents far more than the relocation of a statue on city property. Supporters likened the bust’s presence on city property to a symbol of racism, white supremacy and even hate speech.
“To continue to brandish such hate speech is an ultimate pronouncement that black lives do not matter,” said Willie Mahone, an African-American city resident and attorney.
Frederick resident David Key related the statue to the discrimination he experienced growing up as a black resident of Frederick County, including the presence of segregated restrooms at The Great Frederick Fair.
Alderman Phil Dacey agreed that the statue has become a symbol, one that misrepresents Frederick’s history as pro-Union during the Civil War, as well as its future.
And Alderman Josh Bokee highlighted the symbolism of City Hall in relation to the statue.
“This is the people’s house,” Bokee said. “It should be a beacon of welcome; it should be a beacon of progress; it should be a beacon of ... all that local government should be and can be.”
Those against the resolution, in turn, framed the statue as part of history.
“History is history, and we need to learn from history,” said Deborah Katz Pueschel, a Maryland native now living in Jacksonville, Florida, who said she is a direct descendant of Taney.
Reflecting on previous city discussion of the topic, Frederick Community College history professor Michael Powell said city officials and residents incorrectly relayed several points about Taney and the Dred Scott case. Powell questioned whether officials had researched the topic adequately in preparation for the vote.
“I think if all of us had done that, we would find the question is really broader than Roger Brooke Taney,” Powell said. “This is about politics.”
The presence of an older statue of Taney at the Maryland State House has been questioned, too, but that statue has remained. Plaques have been added to give a fuller picture of the history.
In discussion before Thursday’s vote, Frederick officials emphasized that adopting the resolution doesn’t ensure the statue’s removal, or that it will happen immediately. Because City Hall is part of the Frederick Town Historic District, changes to the exterior, including sculptures, must be reviewed and approved by the Historic Preservation Commission.
Officials also said they wanted the Public Arts Commission to weigh in on the decision given the statue’s significance as a creation of Frederick artist and architect Joseph Urner, who also designed the C. Burr Artz Public Library.
Bokee asked if the final decision should come from the Board of Aldermen, as an elected body.
O’Connor responded by questioning Bokee’s commitment to his oath of office, saying his proposal went against the city’s laws and processes.
Kuzemchak agreed that, as city legal staff have advised, the aldermen can only pass legislation, which Mayor Randy McClement must advance with approvals from other city boards.
For the aldermen to overstep their power or city processes would be “asking for trouble that does not exist,” Kuzemchak said. But the board’s unanimous support for the resolution would certainly hold influence with those overseeing the next steps, she said.
As part of the adopted resolution, the Taney statue will not be moved until those subsequent steps occur. Future discussion will also include a possible setting for a new home for the statue.