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.
Letters to Editor
Richard Marks says
Thanks, Al, for reminding us of our local history of segregation as well as sharing your own personal experiences as a lad in Missouri. Your experience and wisdom shines as always.
I, too, can relay an Avalon story from my time serving on the board of the Foundation. The music group War was coming to perform; a gentleman friend and his wife accepted my invitation to attend as our guests. They loved the show. He shared with me weeks later that it was the first time he had been in the building since he was forced to sit in the balcony as a kid. Does that not bring home any understanding of the pain caused by exclusion and rejection? The road to true equality is still littered with obstacles such as the Talbot Boys monument. A few years later when the Avalon had one of their Outreach programs for Talbot County school kids to experience the theater, the group Preservation Hall Jazz Band performed. Afterwards, a reporter from the Star Democrat interviewed some of the kids who happened to be seated in the balcony. The question posed, “So what do you think of the Avalon Theater?” The response from a young African American girl, “The Avalon rocks!”
I envision and look forward to the day when families just visiting our county courthouse to see the statue of Frederick Douglass or are seated on the lawn to enjoy their property as citizens without being reminded of the horrendous time in this country when their families were treated as property. Yes, those preserving misplaced structures and symbols representative of indefensible actions under the guise of “history” should “seek to understand” and find proper reconciliation or, perhaps, seek other positions.
JT Smith says
I strongly endorse the views of Al Sikes. The pretext of the majority of the Council that COVID has prevented adequate public participation in the decision about the statue is absurd, given the vigor of public debate on the matter. Our council has stigmatized this community. Some commenters have said that the statue of Frederick Douglass on the courthouse lawn adequately counterbalances the Talbot Boys. Pairing the most distinguished historical figure ever born in Talbot County with a Jim Crow era representation of boys who fought to preserve slavery is false equivalence in the extreme. The Council should remedy whatever procedural quibbles that prevented them from doing the right thing and promptly reverse last night’s lamentable outcome.
Lin Clineburg says
Bravo to Al, Richard and JT Smith. We cannot undo the past, but we can acknowledge the errors of the past by removing the glorification of a misbegotten time.
I wonder what those Talbot Boys would say, given the enlightenment of today?
Glenn Baker says
Mr. Sikes is now able to look back 160 years and know what the young men were thinking and what was influencing them.
‘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”
Myself and many others who have studied what happened in Maryland (not Missouri) 160 years ago believe they went south because they were fighting a draconian, illegally operating federal government that had imprisoned the state legislators, state judges, police chiefs, newspaper editors and too many others to mention. The suspension of habeas corpus in Maryland was a Federal crime which was never to be apologized for.
Richard Marks says
No argument with your assertion that some soldiers (kids) fought without understanding and were directed by the economic interests of the property owners. One hundred years later, we had plenty of our impressionable young men sent to Vietnam under the false pretense they were defending our country and way of life while we were really just feeding our military industrial complex. Sadly, so many of those patriots were persons of color who perished while still others returned to face racism and bigotry after putting their lives on the line. Those are the people who deserve to be memorialized.
Andy McCormick says
Those of us who read or have met Al, will know that he always brings a thoughtful, measured voice to the table. In this piece he gives supporters of keeping the Talbot Boys statue at our courthouse door a wide berth, citing the preservation of history as the reason for keeping things as they have been for the last 100 years. Despite being personally disappointed in the outcome of the vote and embarrassed by the way the three council members who voted for status quo explained/failed to explain themselves afterwards, I have spent time reading about the Talbot Boys and how the statue came to be on the courthouse lawn in an attempt to emulate Al’s great ability to be circumspect in the arena of public discourse.I’ve also read commentary on the dangers of sanitizing our history. It is difficult to come away from even a cursory review of this topic without seeing the Talbot Boys statue and other Jim Crow era statures erected by rich donors, as a great example of doing exactly that. The story of the Talbot Boys is part of our story but no greater a part than the story of Unionville, or the stories of those from Talbot County who served and sacrificed in every conflict from the Revolution to Afghanistan. The argument that moving the statue would represent an attempt to erase the Talbot Boys from history, ignores the fact that keeping it where it stands today, on public property, in a place of honor, is in its own way, a perversion of the history of the county, not to mention an affront to many who have lived in this place for as long as those who count the Talbot Boys as direct ancestors, Al has talents for finding common ground on difficult topics, and in the spirit of hoping to emulate those skills, I hope and believe there is a path forward that will allow those wishing to honor the Talbot Boys to have their statue as a lasting memorial to that chapter of our history by moving it to a suitable memorial site and that our courthouse lawn will reflect a less sanitized version of our history and a more suitable beacon of our common beliefs in justice and equality for all.