The stage was in the Avalon Theater. It was 2017 and the Saturday night of the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival. Rene Marie, a deeply soulful jazz vocalist, was the headliner. Rene, probably aware of the Avalon’s earlier racial divide when Black Americans were required to sit in the balcony, turned the pages back a few generations. She recalled musically the deep hurt and what the cause was about.
She sang a number first given voice by Billie Holiday. The title, Strange Fruit. The lyrics recalled a time when black corpses hung from Poplar trees. The last lynching in Maryland occurred in 1933 in Princess Anne.
And now in 2020 the Talbot County Council revives that memory as they vote to continue to honor the Confederacy. I recall this history not to denigrate persons long dead (the Talbot boys) but to underscore the cause. It is not possible to circumvent the line around long forgotten remains and the still searing images of strange fruit.
Boys, who go off to fight in wars, fight for some cause or another. Long after their names have disappeared from memories the cause for which they fought, good or bad, continues to evoke emotion and inform civilization. And in the case of slavery, disparage our history.
I once lived along that divide, in southern Missouri. It was my birth place. My father, as parents were holding their kids out of school because the schools were being desegregated, stated his principle plainly: “Son you will go to school”. His ancestors had fought for the Confederacy.
My mom, whose ancestors occupied a piece of ground thirty miles away, grew up as a Lincoln Republican. Her ancestors too fought in the Civil War, they fought to hold the union together and end slavery. Republican’s today should ask, “What would Lincoln do?”
The larger truth is that the Talbot boys were sent off to war by plantation interests and their political lackeys. They were asked to fight for the continuing enslavement of human beings. The cause, slavery, should not be allowed a place of importance on the backs of young soldiers.
But back to the Talbot County Council. Those who favor continued prominence for a symbol of the cause, slavery, often cast their arguments in terms of preserving history. That is of course their right. We should, however, hope that those who seek to serve the public trust want to improve their community—make history that future generations might value. If all they want to do is preserve a symbol of America’s darkest chapter they should be running for something else.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.