Statuary depicting Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson, once in front of the Baltimore Museum of Art, now removed. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Magazine.
Statuary depicting Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson, once in front of the Baltimore Museum of Art, now removed. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Magazine.

On Taking Down Beautiful Statues

by / Sep. 6, 2017 12am EST

Back in the 1960s, I lived in Baltimore, Maryland, for several years. Near where I lived, there was this magnificent equestrian statue, as I remembered. Actually two magnificent equestrian statues, as I recently had occasion to remember more precisely. I had forgotten that there were two. Also I had forgotten, statues of whom. Some military figures probably, but I couldn’t recall. All I could recall was that the statues were very beautiful, and I frequently walked by to admire them. Magnificent horses and gallant riders.

The occasion to recall my statues, as I think of them, was a news report two weeks or so ago, in the wake of the Charlottesville, Virginia fracas—which was originally about a plan, or organizers of the demonstration that devolved into a fracas claimed it was about a plan, to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee—that Baltimore city officials had clandestinely, during the night, taken down some statues of Confederate figures. It didn’t occur to me till days after the Baltimore report to wonder if the statues they took down were my statues. Because, in the first place, I didn’t remember who those statues were statues of, but more I think because I couldn’t conceive that anyone could take down my statues—whoever they were statues of—because they were so magnificent, so beautiful.

The most romantic sentiment I know of in literary art—in this case opera—not romantic as amorous, though maybe some of that, too—but romantic as to art historical category—is Radames’s declaration to Aida, in the tomb where he has been sentenced alive by the priest judges, and as the huge tomb capstone is lowered to seal him in the chamber, discovers Aida had snuck into the chamber to die with him, she tells him. As surely they both will. And he tells her, “No, you will not die. I loved you too much. You are too beautiful.” That’s about how I felt about my equestrian statues.

I looked up the Baltimore story on the internet, and entries about my statues, which I did not know how to name, but did remember where they were located, in front of the Baltimore Museum of Art. And sure enough. My beautiful statues were the ones they had taken down in the night. Statues of Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson.

Another thing I do remember about the time in Baltimore was trying to find habitation we could afford—my wife and I, and we had a one-year-old daughter—on our extremely limited income. I was a graduate student, so existing on a stipend that barely covered living essentials. Searching through the newspaper classified ads for apartments. I remember being shocked—I had only previously lived in cities in New York and Wisconsin—to see the housing and apartments listings split into two subsections, one labeled “White” and one labeled “Colored.”

I thought, Wow, we’re in the South. I hadn’t previously thought of Maryland as the South. It’s not technically. It was a border state in the Civil War, with pro-Union and pro-Confederacy factions about even. When Lincoln said he hoped God was on our side “but I must have Kentucky,” he could as well have said Kentucky and Maryland. And he did substantial Constitution-bending to keep Maryland in particular in the Union. Such as numerous summary arrests and imprisonments, and suspensions of habeas corpus. And Maryland, like Kentucky, was a slave state, and as a key element of his desperate effort to keep them both in the Union, his freeing of slaves per the Emancipation Proclamation was applied to rebel states only. But Maryland never left the Union.

An interesting bit of information I learned from the internet entries on the statues was when they were erected. In 1948. I would have thought much earlier. Much closer to actual Civil War times.

Moreover, thinking more about the matter, I thought, why would Maryland, which always was Union territory, in 1948 or whenever, erect monuments to Confederate leaders? Monuments, it occurred to me, more in the spirit—in 1948, as in the 1960s—of the openly segregationist housing and apartment listings in the newspaper, than of honoring dead generals. Monuments to Jim Crow—which was alive and well in 1948, as in the 1960s—nor as simple commemoratives of that system, but to affirm it and maintain it. Keep it alive and well.

Beautiful statues. But beyond the matter of formal beauty, artworks have—may have—a symbolic significance. And whereas formal beauty may have no moral aspect, symbolic significance most assuredly does. A message—in the case of the statues of Lee and Jackson—of oppression, discrimination, injustice. In the 1860s, as in the 1960s, as in 2017. In which respect, the statues were immoral. Obscene.

While it was at it, Baltimore took down a few more statues. One of Roger Taney, a Maryland native and chief justice of the United States from 1836 to 1864, who penned the infamous Dred Scott decision, which held that an African-American whose ancestors had been brought here in bondage could never—never—be a citizen of the United States, with rights to vote, to sue in court, etc.