Reconciling the Truth About Bolton Hill’s Monumental Past

From Just Us to JusticeOn May 2nd, 1903, more than 700 people gathered on a platform erected on Mt. Royal Avenue to celebrate the commemoration of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument—the first of four Confederate monuments erected in Baltimore. Hundreds more people gathered around the platform and on the parade route, which left from Mt Vernon Square and marched to Bolton Hill. The marchers, dressed in full Confederate military dress, made sure to stop at 814 Cathedral Street, the home of General Lawrason Riggs, where a member of his family waved a Confederate battle flag from one of the upper windows to rousing cheers from the procession. 

Among those celebrating this event were many Bolton Hill residents. One was the Rev. William Meade Dame, rector of Memorial Episcopal Church. Another was Mrs. D. Giraud Wright, the President of the Daughters of the Confederacy, who lived on Park Ave. Newspaper accounts of the event gave the impression that much of the city turned out for the celebration.

During the opening prayer, the Rev. Dame reminded the crowd of the righteousness of the cause of the Confederacy and how the men being honored today “shed such luster on their name and race.”

Those who witnessed the spectacle might be forgiven for thinking the South had won the war and that slavery was still the law of the land.

This typical celebration of the “Lost Cause” movement defined the Confederacy as a heroic struggle for states’ rights against an overbearing government. It also occurred during a time of increasing racial tensions in the city of Baltimore. In 1903, Democrats in Maryland began their campaign to disenfranchise black voters through a series of proposed constitutional amendments. These failed, but in 1910, Baltimore passed the most restrictive housing ordinance in the country. Many of the local activists supporting these efforts were Bolton Hill residents. We should not forget these facts.

General Howard, the keynote speaker at the commemoration of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument, said it was being erected “in the last days of the actors of the war”—that is, as the last of the Confederate soldiers were passing away—in the hopes that “in ages to come men and women who pass will say, ‘it is a worthy tribute from noble women to brave men.'” In all my research on this era of our city’s and our neighborhood’s history, I have been struck by the fact that there is almost no mention of slavery, the black residents of Baltimore, or the issue of race in general when it comes to the Civil War. It seems that in the interest of “reconciliation” between the North and South, reconciliation for slavery and the evils done to black bodies and minds was set aside and never taken up again.

Now that the city of Baltimore has taken down the all four monuments, the question that ought to be asked is: What next? Is the plinth left on Mt. Royal Ave. left empty? Does it become a platform for MICA students and other artists to express themselves? Should another statue be erected in its place? What conversations—if any—should be had with the Daughters of the Confederacy and the descendants of those who erected the statue in the first place? 

While many feel great relief that these statues have finally come down, many others, I suspect, may be surprised or even taken aback by the City’s actions. Very few, I suspect, are aware of the origins of these statues, their ties to the Lost Cause movement and the strong white supremacist overtones that surrounded their installations. I suspect many may still wonder why it was necessary to remove these statues at all.

Perhaps we, as a community, need to dedicate ourselves to our own neighborhood truth and reconciliation process. We need to tell—and hear—the truth about Bolton Hill’s own history of racism and support for segregation, and then have some honest conversation, not only about removing statues, but about the current realities of race and racism in our neighborhood, schools and universities here in Bolton Hill. How to people of color continue to be affected by these realities?

To this end, we’ll be hosting further discussion about Memorial Episcopal Church and the role it has played in Bolton Hill’s racial history on Wednesday, September 27, at 7 pm. We hope you’ll attend and help continue our neighborhood’s truth and reconciliation process.

Coming to Grips with our History

When you move to Bolton Hill, an unspoken question lingers in your mind for the first few months, maybe even years, that you live here.

“How does this place exist?”

This question takes different forms. How does a neighbor get to be so friendly? Do people really sit on their stoops and talk to each other? Do moms and dads really go out of their way to watch kids, pick up dinner, play in the park, organize activities? And as a new resident with two young children I am happy to say the answer to all of those questions is “Yes!” Bolton Hill really is a special place. A unique community that exists sometimes as a village in and of itself, where neighbors really will let you borrow a quart of milk (or more likely a six-pack of beer).

But there is another side of this question that sits a bit lower, and is a bit more uncomfortable. “How does this place exist?”—when neighborhoods on every side have been ravaged by drugs, crime, white (and black) flight and the dereliction of the city? How have these homes stayed so well preserved? How do people feel safe on the streets? How is it that the shops are devoid of bullet-proof glass, that the parks safe and green and well kept?

A challenging reality for all of us who live here is that the answer to that question is rooted in a history of racism, Lost Cause pro-Confederate movements, pro-segregation movements, neighborhood covenants, urban renewal and even today, the New Jim Crow that Michelle Alexander writes so eloquently about.

As a priest and as Pastor at Memorial Episcopal Church, I am keenly aware of this reality because for many years, members of our parish propagated this way of thinking and acted to keep the neighborhood “white.” I am also keenly aware of the importance of telling the truth about our history in order to chart a new course for the future of Bolton Hill, and perhaps for greater inner-West Baltimore.

This past January, Memorial Church began exploring the history of racism within our parish. At the time, I had no idea how far the tentacles would reach. But as we uncovered more and more stories we realized that the story of racism at Memorial is also the story of racism in Bolton Hill and to some extent, the greater Mt. Royal District—which originally extended from Dolphin to Druid Hill Park and from Mt. Royal to Pennsylvania Avenue. 

The continued shaving-off of pieces of that neighborhood until we got “Bolton Hill”—a name only adopted in twentieth century—was part of an effort to keep the so-called “neighborhood” white.

A few of you may be asking, “Why are we talking about race? In a community newsletter?”

Perhaps it’s because that’s where these conversations should start—not with big, national-level ideals floated among strangers, but among people who live next door to each other, see each other in the parks and on the sidewalks and at the grocery store. 

The only way our national dialogue around race will get any better is if we can tell the truth about our past and have honest conversations about our future with the people who live closest to us. And those conversations should begin here, because even though we have a historic pattern of segregation and racism in this part of Baltimore, our neighborhood is also one of the most diverse in the city.

Our neighborhood is 57% white, 32% black and close to 7% Asian. We have teachers, police officers, professors, professionals, doctors, lawyers, artists, students, musicians. Gay and straight. Religious and less so. Within our bounds we have three fixed-income senior housing buildings, a small number of fixed-income apartments, and a variety of homes ranging in value from $200,000 to close to a million dollars. We have student apartments and luxury apartments. Starter homes and the palatial mansions of Park Avenue.

This spring, during Lent, Memorial Episcopal led neighborhood residents on a Confronting Racism—Stations of the Cross Walk. It proved to be a cathartic moment for church members and neighbors who participated. Not because we suddenly “prayed racism away,” but because we were able to put words to the unspeakable actions of the past that inform who we are today, and in so doing, begin to unravel a new way of moving forward. 

But we still work to do. Five-year-old black children get profiled playing in the park. MICA students are followed or stopped by police for walking home. If I am talking with a member of the Samaritan Community, neighbors will frequently check in as they walk by, asking if I am “ok.” More than a few African American neighbors express feeling like they don’t fully belong here.

So our work continues and the conversation continues, within the parish and within the neighborhood.

I hope you will consider joining in this work.