We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember, with equal admiration, those who struck at the nation’s life, and those who struck to save it—those who fought for slavery, and those who fought for liberty and justice. ~ Frederick Douglass, at Arlington National Cemetery, 1871
These words by Frederick Douglass – addressing which of our predecessors merit celebration on public property and which do not – seem especially apt today, as the Council debates removal of the Talbot Boys monument standing across the courtyard from that of the famed abolitionist from Talbot County. Because the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland shares Douglass’s view that it is those who fight for the aspirational American ideals of liberty, equality, and justice, not those who fight to maintain white supremacy, who should be held up for public acclaim, we strongly urge the Council to remove the Talbot Boys monument – both statue and base – from the County courthouse lawn.
As you know, the ACLU is not new to this debate. When the local NAACP asked the County to remove the Talbot Boys monument in 2015, following the tragic killing of nine Black parishioners by a white supremacist at a Charleston, South Carolina church, the ACLU worked in support of the effort. Although we succeeded then in forcing the Council to reconsider its initial, closed-door decision to retain the statue, and to hold a second vote in public, we nevertheless failed in our goal of removal. Faced then with the Council’s decision to retain a monument symbolizing racial oppression to so many, the ACLU lamented in remarks outside the courthouse that Talbot County was “standing on the wrong side of history.”
Much has changed for all of us since that June day in 2016. And now the time has finally come for the County to take a different stand: It is time, at long last, for the Talbot Boys to go.
The Statue is a Monument to White Supremacy
The Talbot Boys monument, whose base was installed in 1914 and statue erected in 1916, celebrates the soldiers from Talbot County who betrayed their country and fought against the United States during the Civil War. The monument depicts a Rebel soldier with a Confederate battle flag draped across his back, and bears the caption, “To the Talbot Boys, 1861-1865, C.S.A.” The names of 84 “Talbot Boys” who died fighting against the United States are listed on the sides of the base. The statue was modeled after Longfellow’s ‘Excelsior,’ a poem about a youth with a banner climbing through a mountain town striving ‘onward and upward,’ though he suffers a serious setback. Its unsubtle symbolism is that the Confederate cause embodied in the young man would continue to rise despite the South’s loss of the Civil War.
The statue’s prominent placement at the courthouse is insufferable. Courthouses are the visual embodiments of the rule of law and values of the community, reflecting “the beliefs, priorities, and aspirations of a people,” as former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote in foreword to a book on Virginia’s courthouses. This is why Confederate sympathizers specifically chose to erect monuments there. They wanted to send a message to Black people that the law was not meant to protect them. Indeed, this message is inescapable with respect to the Talbot Boys monument, which not only stands on the grounds of the courthouse, but on the site that once served as an auction block for enslaved people.
As eloquently captured by Sherrilyn Ifill, in her 2007 book about the legacy of lynching in America, “On the Courthouse Lawn:”
“For blacks in Talbot County, the fact that Confederate soldiers who had fought against their country on behalf of the seceded Confederacy of states are honored on the courthouse lawn seemed insult enough—an insult magnified by the fact that Maryland had never even been part of the Confederacy. Walter Black of the NAACP remarked, “Think about today if we had someone who fought against the U.S. government. They might be called terrorists now. But here we had the Talbot Boys. … ‘They certainly didn’t fight for my freedom.’”
Likewise, the statue’s evocative nature is part of what makes it so intolerable. The statue glorifies the allegorical boy depicted and through him the Confederates who fought against their country, and to keep slavery, instilling in the viewer a wish to be like him. Richard Potter, President of the Talbot NAACP, recalls as a boy himself gazing upon the statue thinking “how did this little boy get on this statue?” He says of the youth depicted, “we almost wanted to emulate him” and he is not alone in the sentiment. Yet bearing arms against your brethren for the right to enslave people and uphold one of the most brutally racist institutions in human history cannot be something we wish our neighbors to aspire to, let alone our children.
Ultimately, as Jane Dailey, Professor of American History from the University of Chicago, says, there is no way to separate the symbols of the Confederacy from the values of white supremacy, because white supremacy is the explicit ideological underpinning of the Confederacy. Vice President Alexander Stephens said plainly of the Confederacy in his 1861 “Cornerstone” speech:
[I]ts foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
This is the shameful message of the Talbot Boys.
The Statue Distorts, Rather than Preserves, History
Those who seek to protect the Talbot Boys monument claim that to take it down would erase history, failing to see that the statue’s very purpose was to distort history. Decades after the Civil War ended, in the early 1900s, over 400 Confederate monuments were erected around the country, many by the Daughters of the Confederacy. This group of southern women undertook a well-documented effort to re-write the history of the Civil War through their “Lost Cause” mythology. “What the South lost on the battlefield, it sought to recover in the collective memory of the next generation,” federal judge Carlton Reeves aptly explained in his ruling in Moore v. Bryant, a lawyer Carlos Moore’s challenge to Mississippi’s retention of the Stars and Bars emblem within its state flag.
The Talbot Boys statue was erected in the same moment when statues were springing up all across the nation, as part of this coordinated effort to paint the Confederate cause as heroic and just. It was a time when Jim Crow laws were in firmly in place, “respectable” members of society participated in lynchings on the Eastern Shore, and Ku Klux Klan activity had begun to resurge. Just as textbooks were re-written to downplay the brutality of slavery and its centrality to the South’s secession from the United States, these monuments were used to obscure the causes of the war beneath a blanket of nostalgia. Joseph B. Seth, an Easton lawyer and booster of the Talbot Boys statue, wrote in the monthly publication ‘Confederate Veteran’ that “Talbot County, Md. had just pride in her contribution to the Confederate cause.” Seth’s memoir condemns abolitionists who stirred up the Marylanders enslaved by his family, making them “dissatisfied with their masters, or opposed to work on general principles.” He fondly recounts what he portrays as the golden time before that, when “the bulk of the slaves were devoted to their masters and their families, taking great interest in everything concerning them.” Reading from Seth’s memoir, it is impossible to escape the white supremacist meaning the statue held for those who erected it.
Adornments on our public buildings shape “our thoughts about ourselves and our institutions” Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has written, warning that the story of a building “will directly affect our efforts to work productively together.” While the past of Talbot County lives on in its residents, this statue – harking back to a time when the community celebrated white supremacy – stands as road block to its future.
Our Current Moment
In the wake of George Floyd’s horrific killing by police, a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement is leading the charge, renewing the commitment and urgency felt by many Americans to act boldly for racial equity and reform. We now have the opportunity to reshape our public memory and begin to move away from white supremacy in ways once thought out of reach. Across the United States, and the world even (with Atlantic slave trade statues falling in the U.K. and statues of King Leopold toppled in Belgium), people and governments with conscience are acting to remove symbols of hate and oppression. Earlier this month, even the Mississippi legislature finally relented in changing the state flag to rid it of the Stars and Bars. And in Virginia alone at least 32 symbols of the Confederacy have come down in response to the George Floyd Protests, most recently, the ‘Silent Sentinel’ that stood outside the Loudoun County Courthouse.
The same is happening here, leaving the Talbot Boys as the last Confederate monument standing on state land in Maryland. In June, a plaque with a Confederate flag was voted to be removed from the State house. Likewise, in Wicomico County, a sign honoring a Confederate General was taken down by county officials stating “monuments such as this are offensive to many in the county.” The Republican County Executive said he hoped that the act of taking down the sign would be a step on the path of healing. At last, the day of reckoning has come for these monuments to white supremacy. So too, it should be, for the Talbot Boys.
“As the heart changes, the mind must follow,” President Pack is quoted saying recently, addressing reexamination of his own views about the monument. We agree, and hope now the Council as a whole will follow too.
We urge the Talbot County Council to seize this moment, vote with conscience, and take down the Talbot Boys.
Deborah A. Jeon is the legal director and Vikrant S. Chandel is a law clerk with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland