A Visit from Robert Lee

From Just Us to JusticeBy Grey Maggiano

One hundred years ago, to have any family of General Robert E. Lee visit Memorial Church in Bolton Hill would have been a momentous occasion. Hundreds likely would have gathered to be close to the defender of the South, and to celebrate all those who “fought for a cause that was right.”

So it was with not a little irony that I had the pleasure to welcome the Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV, descendant of the Confederate general, to Memorial Church to discuss undoing white supremacy, taking down monuments to the Confederacy and changing the narrative around race in our city.

On Sunday evening of November 26, the Rev. Lee spoke, in a discussion moderated by Pastor Montrell Haygood of the Garden Church, about his personal journey to disavowing the Confederacy and white supremacy, and about “What is Next?” for him and for us. 

The watershed moment, for him, was the rally in Charlottesville and in particular the death of Heather Heyer. He felt he could no longer stay silent and needed to speak out. He appeared at the MTV Music Awards in August, at the side of Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, and spoke in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in favor of taking down statues of Robert E. Lee and other prominent figures of the Confederacy.

Afterward, a significant number of his parishioners expressed their opposition to his statements and requested he step down.

Rev. Lee did not expect to be forced to resign from his Church for supporting Black Lives Matter, and it is still painful to him to see so many people that he loves and cares for not understand what is meant by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Rev. Lee offered some helpful reflections on the issue of monuments and racism — relating a story from the Book of Acts, where Paul is thrown in jail because he wants to bring a new way of viewing the world that would involve tearing down old statues. The caution, of course, is that those statues never came down; Paul’s “new way” was never really embraced in Ephesus. Our challenge is that while the monuments have come down we haven’t really changed the narrative around race here in Baltimore.

Pastor Haygood offered his own perspective as a black pastor at a purpose-built multi-racial church, reminding us that this work isn’t easy. They have issues not only regarding race, but also class and political beliefs, that make it hard to keep the congregation together. What has been most life-giving for him is the recognition that we don’t have to agree 100% to be in a community, we just have to agree that we need to be in community.

Rob reminded us that not everyone has to go on The View or MTV to make a difference, and that by developing authentic relationships with our neighbors, especially those of a different race, creed, identity or political persuasion, we can do a lot to craft a different way of dealing with race.

Neighbors from Bolton Hill and around the city shared their own stories of pain and hope around the issue of racism in Baltimore. To conclude the event, I asked The Rev. Lee the change he would like to see in Baltimore if he were to return in five years.

He said, “I would like to see the same investment that is put into the Inner Harbor and white communities be invested in black communities. I’d like to see re-development without gentrification. And I’d like to see people more openly and honestly having conversations about systemic racism here in the city.”

A tall order, but I believe Baltimore is up to meeting these challenges, and that our small corner of inner West Baltimore can lead the way.

Watch a recording of most of the evening’s conversation on YouTube here

Dwell on the Past to Make a Better Future

From Just Us to JusticeBy Grey Maggiano

One of the most frequent responses I get when I  tell stories about the history of racism in Baltimore or in Bolton Hill is, “Let’s not dwell on the past.” This is usually spoken by well-meaning white people, usually over the age of 50, who don’t think it necessary to spend a lot of time talking about what life was like “back then.” 

Unfortunately, this attitude ignores the fact that our history continues to influence our present reality. As MICA student Zion Douglass said so eloquently at last month’s Community Conversation on the Confederate monuments, history is a “subtle” but constant reminder that black people are not welcome here.

I frequently remind people that just because you don’t remember the past in a particular way, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. Black people in their seventies or eighties who grew up in West Baltimore are aware of this history, and they have shared it with their children, and their grandchildren.

So when an organization or institution—whether it’s a church like Memorial Episcopal, a neighborhood group like MRIA, a school like MICA, or any other community group—asks, why more people of color don’t belong to their group, part of the answer lies in our history. Because there was a time when black people were not welcome in our churches, in our community associations, or even on our streets.  

Early 1900's meeting announcement of Mt. Royal Protection Association
Early 1900s announcement from the Mt. Royal Protection Association.

In fact, at an early 1900’s meeting of the Mt. Royal Protection Association, a group of local pastors, including a pastor from Memorial, spoke about the need to keep the neighborhood segregated to prevent inter-marriage between blacks and whites. Maybe a reason some people of color are leery about our institutions is because historically, they have had good reason to be.

Last year, at the conclusion of our Confronting Racism Stations of the Cross, a neighbor remarked to me that she had always been a bit uneasy living in Bolton Hill, and that the process of methodically proceeding through the neighborhood, uncovering these hidden truths, speaking them out loud and pledging to not commit those sins again was a powerful and healing moment for her. Perhaps that is true for others. Perhaps it could be true for you as well.

We should tell our truths boldly. Readily uncover the history of racism, and segregation and Jim Crow in Baltimore and in our community of Bolton Hill. We should do so not as a form of eternal self-flagellation for the sins of the past, but in order to better understand how our community, our institutions, our streets became what they are today.

One way to actively participate is to join the Service of Reconciliation on Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 p.m. at Memorial Episcopal Church. This will be the final stop in the Trail of Souls Pilgrimage, an annual program put on by the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland that calls attention to the Church’s role in supporting slavery, segregation and Jim Crow in Maryland.

Memorial Episcopal in Bolton Hill will be the final stop on the pilgrimage, and the program will conclude with a service of reconciliation led by Bishop Eugene Sutton, the first African American Bishop of Maryland. It will include the St. James’ Gospel Choir and feature a talk given by Dr. Ray Winbush, the Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University. This service is open to anyone in the community who would like to participate.  

Let’s dwell a bit on the past, on purpose, to create a better present and better futures for all.

Register here for the Trail of Souls Pilgrimage, Saturday, November 4, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Meet at the Diocesan Center, 4 East University Parkway, Baltimore.

Reconciling the Truth About Bolton Hill’s Monumental Past

From Just Us to Justice

By Grey Maggiano

On 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

By Grey Maggiano

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.

Memorial Episcopal Walks on Good Friday to Repent Racism

By Rev. Grey Maggiano

Plans for Unveiling
Daughters of the Confederacy Announces Program
April 24th, 1903

Mrs. D. Giraud Wright (1632 Park Ave.), President of the Maryland Daughters, announced
at social meeting of the Baltimore Chapter …The Strains of Dixie will mark the formal
opening of the program, and following this the invocation by the Rev. William M.
Dame (Rector, Memorial Episcopal Church), Chaplain of the Maryland Daughters
of the Confederacy.”

Station 2: site of the former segregated Bolton St. Recreation Center
Participants visit the former site of the segregated Bolton St. Recreation Center, Station 2 on the Repenting for Racism walk.

Almost 114 years ago to the day, most of Bolton Hill—some 700 people stood on the stage alone!— turned out for the dedication of the Daughters of the Confederacy Monument on Mt. Royal Avenue. Leading the proceedings were the then-Rector of Memorial Episcopal Church and the President of the Daughters of the Confederacy, a longtime Park Ave. resident.

This monument was one of the fourteen stops on Memorial Church’s Repenting for Racism: Stations of the Cross Walk last month, which was held on Good Friday.

After a long period of research and truth-telling, Memorial Members selected fourteen sites around the neighborhood that call attention to both our parish’s and our neighborhood’s legacy of racism. These included:

  • The former site of the segregated Bolton Hill Recreation Center on the east side of the 1300 block of Bolton Street;
  • 1212 Bolton Street, which was purchased by a black Baptist pastor who was forcibly evicted by unhappy neighbors; and
  • Memorial Church’s own parish hall, in which blackface minstrel shows were staged to entertain the neighborhood for many years.
Stations of the Cross walk
Visiting the “stations of the cross” of Bolton Hill’s past, April 14, 2017.

When people ask me why we need to do these kinds of things— why we need to “drudge up” this ugly history, and remind ourselves of the painful past— I point to stories like this. Or I tell of the strong neighborhood activism supporting segregated housing, or my ancestor’s letter to the editor urging the restriction of the right to vote for “the Negroe.” 

We need to do these kinds of things because they are not ancient history. They didn’t just happen before the Civil War, or in the 1800s, but in the mid-twentieth century. Current parishioners and neighbors were alive when many of these events took place. And, though most Bolton Hill residents didn’t live here then, there are many, many neighbors, churches and institutions across Eutaw Place who do remember.

The reality is that we have asymmetrical access to information and asymmetrical notions of history. While Bolton Hillers celebrate the very diverse, very inclusive neighborhood we see between Mt. Royal and Eutaw, and Dolphin and North Ave., neighbors on the other sides of these boundaries remember a not-too-distant past when to walk through Bolton Hill as a person of color guaranteed a visit from the police. 

Perhaps you, like me, have asked why Bolton Hill retains its reputation as a predominantly white, wealthy neighborhood when the actual numbers suggest it is much more economically and racially diverse? Or why your institution or organization, like our church, has trouble developing relationships with organizations west of Eutaw Place? Or perhaps you have wondered why urban renewal, redlining, and segregation didn’t have the same effect in Bolton Hill as it did in Reservoir Hill, Upton, or Penn North?

Memorial Church’s research shows that the answer to all of these questions lies in our own history.

They say that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. Whether or not that is true in this case, our lack of knowledge of the past makes it very hard to dialogue with those who continue to feel its impact.

We hope that by bringing these truths to light, we can help all of our neighbors, black and white, rich and poor, longtime residents and new arrivals, to understand both the problematic history of these few city blocks, and to band together to set out a different future— for our Church, for our neighborhood, and perhaps for our whole city.

For more information please visit Memorial Episcopal online, and see this related article about the Repenting Racism walk in the Washington Post.