The detailed histories of Talbot County in the Civil War era presented recently by Ms. Mielke and Mr. Callahan, with pushback from Mr. Terrone, are all very interesting, and a dazzling display of their knowledge of the war period. But as to the Statue, these particular histories are completely beside the point.
The Talbot Boys Statue is the physical manifestation of the resurgence of explicit white supremacy in this State and County, the culmination of a wave of chilling racist, anti-black policies enacted in the 1900-1915 period dedicated particularly towards extinguishing any sign of black political power.
Before touching on the evidence of that assertion, I urge any reader who wants (dares?) to understand what was going on in America, in Maryland, and in Talbot during this era to invest some of your Covid-induced free time to watch “The Birth of a Nation,” the infamous film released in 1915 just when the Statue was erected. (Simply google “Youtube Birth of a Nation,” and a high-quality video will pop right up.)
The Birth of a Nation is very hard to watch—not because it is a silent film in black and white, using seemingly archaic techniques (which in fact were revolutionarily modern), and not because of its three-hour and twelve-minute length (though you may want to watch only “Part II” at a little over 1 hour.). It is hard to watch because of its unvarnished, hideous expression of white supremacy, of black ignorance and malevolence, of every stereotypical caricature of evil and debauchery that could be visited by one race on another.
There is nothing funny about Birth of a Nation. Originally called “The Clansman,” the film purports to tell the “true history” of Reconstruction and how the Ku Klux Klan saved the South—indeed, all of White America.
“The Los Angeles Times called the film “the greatest picture ever made and the greatest drama ever filmed”. It became a national cultural phenomenon: merchandisers made Ku-Klux hats and kitchen aprons, and ushers dressed in white Klan robes for openings. In New York there were Klan-themed balls and, in Chicago that Halloween, thousands of college students dressed in robes for a massive Klan-themed party.” (Indeed, the KKK suddenly took on a new life and Jim Crow reigned triumphant for the next half-century.)
Birth of a Nation was the highest grossing film in American History until 1939 (when overtaken ironically by Gone With the Wind). It had a special showing for President Wilson at the White House in February 1915 and the next day before the entire Supreme Court, thirty-eight senators, many representatives and the diplomatic corps. The audience of 600 “cheered and applauded throughout.” [Information above from Wikipedia.]
Though contemporaneous and capturing so vividly the zeitgeist of race relations of the time, that film of course was not the specific catalyst the Talbot Boys Statue. Rather, as detailed in Chris Brown’s informative book, The Road to Jim Crow: The African American Struggle on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the white dominated Talbot County that erected that Statue was on the conservative side of a political system whose policies were designed explicitly to freeze Blacks into submission and to quash all black political power in the State of Maryland.
A single example of so many: Governor Edwin Warfield, elected in 1904 as “the Candidate of the White people,” trumpeted victory “for White Supremacy in Maryland.” His party’s platform declared that “the only issue is whether Negro suffrage, put upon us against our will by force, shall be restricted and its power for evil destroyed.” Smith, his Republican opponent, agreed; his objective was “to crush to atoms every obstruction that stands in the way of white man’s rule!”
These were the years when a variety of voter suppression and segregation laws were enacted. Brown also details innumerable social, economic, and journalistic injustices unfolding at the same time, not hidden away but all reported in the Easton Star, the Chestertown Transcript and other local papers.
Spoiler alert: The closing scene of Birth of a Nation shows a solid line of robed and hooded clansmen on horseback, each with pistol drawn and cocked, aimed directly at the town’s black citizens on election day, just daring one to try to vote. Rather more dramatic, but not far from the message sent by “The Talbot Boys—CSA,” right in front of the Talbot County Courthouse.
Time to take it down.
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.