It is a small plaque, probably not read or even seen by most visitors to the State House, Maryland’s beautiful capitol building in Annapolis. But it still has the power to offend.
Soon, the plaque memorializing the Confederate soldiers who fought in the American Civil War to preserve the institution of slavery will be gone. That is the right thing to do, and the state is finally doing it.
The plaque was erected in 1964 — 99 years after the end of the bloodiest war in American history — by the Maryland Civil War Centennial Commission. Its stated purpose was to remember the nearly 63,000 Marylanders who served in the Union and more than 22,000 in the Confederacy.
But the commission went astray when it stated that it “did not attempt to decide who was right and who was wrong, or to make decisions on other controversial issues.”
That is truly offensive. There is no question which side was right in the Civil War. The North fought to preserve the Union, and the South fought to preserve the institution of slavery. Period.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones, the first woman and the first black person to hold that office, has been pushing for more than a year to have the plaque removed.
The State House Trust, which is responsible for preserving the historic, 18th century building, tried last year to compromise by covering the Confederate battle flag with Maryland’s state flag. But Jones correctly continued pushing for complete removal because of the offensive language.
Removing Confederate monuments, whether small plaques or imposing statues, is the right thing for our country to be doing. It is not an attempt to erase history. It is an attempt to correct the mistakes of the past, when Confederate monuments were raised all over the South and even in Northern cities, to reinforce the culture of white supremacy and resist the push for civil rights.
“The Confederate monuments … did not organically pop up like mushrooms,” W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote in 2017. “The installation of the 1,000-plus memorials across the U.S. was the result of the orchestrated efforts of white Southerners and a few Northerners with clear political objectives: They tended to be erected at times when the South was fighting to resist political rights for black citizens.”
The intended message was quite clear: America is a white nation, and blacks are second-class citizens.
Now, we as a country are grappling with how to keep alive the memory of the past, even the difficult, shameful episodes, without showing honor to those who wanted to tear our nation apart.
In the time of the Black Lives Matter movement, we are reassessing our history once again, with a new resolve to correct the sins of the past.
As part of that effort, it is time to stop honoring the people who fought against the Union, whether with statues, buildings or military base names.
David Petraeus, the retired Army general, sparked controversy recently by advocating changing the name of 10 military bases named for Confederate generals.
“The irony of training at bases named for those who took up arms against the United States, and for the right to enslave others, is inescapable to anyone paying attention,” Petraeus wrote in Atlantic magazine.
The general said that the U.S. Military Academy at West Point honors Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army, with a gate, a road, an entire housing area, and a barracks, the last of which was built during the 1960s.
Petraeus wrote he was not advocating to erase Lee from West Point, but he added: “remembering Lee’s strengths and weaknesses, his military and personal successes and failures, is different from venerating him.”
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said historians have been debating how to remember the history of the war without honoring those who fought for the South.
“One could draw that line at people who took up arms—indeed, committed treason—to defend the rights of some human beings to own, buy, and sell other human beings,” Grossman wrote four years ago.
Now is the time to take on this arduous task, to right the wrongs committed by those who tried to use the symbols of the Confederacy to intimidate and demean black men and women.