In the wake of a national discussion about the legacy of racism in America’s public spaces, Emmitsburg is looking to update a plaque that divided its World War I veterans by race.
The town’s Doughboy statue was toppled in a single-vehicle crash in front of the historic Emmit House, located at 601 W. Main St., on June 17. That same night, a gunman in South Carolina killed nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in an apparent racist attack.
Following the shooting, activists across the country called for the removal of what they considered racist symbols from government property. The Confederate battle flag and public parks named for Confederate leaders were criticized.
The Emmitsburg statue, erected in 1927, is one of many across the U.S. designed by E.M. Viquesney, a well-known American sculptor of doughboy images. It features a plaque that names about 125 WWI veterans from Emmitsburg, three of whom, Albert Beatty, Ward P. Brown and Charles Edward Butler, appear under a separate heading for “colored soldiers.”
The confluence of the crash and the aftermath of the church attack prompted 72-year-old resident Bob Rosensteel to call for an alphabetized plaque that makes no reference to race. Because the memorial will need to be repaired, he said, an opportunity exists to make the plaque more inclusive of the black soldiers.
“It just kind of hit me — this was long before this Confederate flag stuff — these people just don’t have a just place in history,” Rosensteel said. “Their names need to be put in the front plate in alphabetical order.”
Removing the reference to race would properly honor the black soldiers for their service, he said, which is all the more important because there are no WWI veterans alive to speak for them.
Emmitsburg Mayor Don Briggs said he is in favor of updating the plaque.
“It tells us something about the history,” he said. “[But] my feeling is to change it. ... This could be something that we could do as a tribute to our heritage and also something for Charleston.”
Briggs hasn’t heard much opposition to the idea, he added, although the Maryland Department of Planning seemed a bit hesitant to change the plaque because of the historical nature of the monument.
A department spokesman was not able to offer a comment late Monday afternoon.
The town has been working with the Maryland Department of Planning to repair the statue and evaluate the possibility of relocating it. The cost of the project is yet to be determined.
Both Briggs and Rosensteel hope changing the plaque can be part of a wider campaign to honor black soldiers by not separating them in monuments.
“It really needs to be changed in a lot of places,” Rosensteel said. “As Americans, we ought to look at this and say, ‘This is shameful.’”