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Inside a Group’s Push to Remove a Statue to an Enslaver
By Colin Campbell, Associated Press
Published April 12, 2021

 

O’Donnell Square Park in Canton in Baltimore, MD  (wikipedia)

The closure of O’Donnell Square Park in Canton without warning Monday evening set off an immediate flurry of emails, texts and phone calls among one group of neighbors in particular.

The 50 members of the Canton Anti-Racism Alliance dared to wonder: Had their plan worked? They’d spent the past eight months doing historical research and community outreach, writing letters to state lawmakers and successive mayors, and collecting more than 900 signatures on a petition.

“This may be it! I’m headed there now!” read the first email.

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Subject: “URGENT – STATUE’S COMING DOWN!”

Torbin Green took a video and Sheila Anderson shed tears, overwhelmed by the weight of the moment, as the city hauled away the statue of the park’s namesake, Capt. John O’Donnell, an Irish-born merchant who enslaved dozens of Black people on his 2,000-acre waterfront plantation, Canton.

“For me, the removal was almost like our communities are _ in a very small way, a fraction of a way, an iota _ restoring the dignity … that was robbed from them,” Anderson said. “I thought about how long it took us. I thought about the fact that I’m actually witnessing it coming down. I was emotional.”

The statue in the heart of one of Baltimore’s most popular entertainment areas is the latest to come down in the city. Protesters toppled one of Christopher Columbus and rolled into the Inner Harbor on the Fourth of July last summer, and four with links to the Confederacy were removed under then-Mayor Catherine Pugh to preempt any violence after a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott would not say whether any such concerns led to the removal of the O’Donnell statue.

“This is something that has had our attention for months,” he said in a phone interview. “Threat or no threat, we were already working in partnership with people in the community to address the issues.”

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Scott promised the new city administrator will create a standard, transparent review process for community requests to rename “these cruel monuments while continuing to promote equitable policies to right yesterday’s wrongs.”

“We can’t move forward as a city, Baltimore can’t move forward, divided,” he said. “We need to come together to discuss these issues, and have uncomfortable conversations.”

The O’Donnell statue, dedicated in 1980, paid homage to the merchant whose ship, the Pallas, historians believe was the first from Baltimore to reach China. He sold opium, teas, silk and other cargo, and then used the profits to buy the plantation before dying in 1805 at age 56 as one of the young country’s wealthiest men.

The nation’s first census in 1790 listed 36 enslaved people living at O’Donnell’s plantation, according to the 1978 book “Historic Canton” by Norman G. Rukert Sr.

The statue’s removal represented a victory for the Canton Anti-Racism Alliance, which advocates to make their mostly white, relatively wealthy Baltimore neighborhood more welcoming, diverse and inclusive.

The effort began last summer, amid the national uproar over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police, when Canton Community Association President Mark Edelson and Democratic City Councilman Zeke Cohen hosted a Zoom call to discuss resident concerns about the statue.

The alliance, which emerged from that meeting, included community members, business owners, historians, elected officials and people with training in anti-racism. They circulated the petition, held meetings to solicit public input on the issue and wrote to both Scott and former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

“The petition was one part of the entire sum of the strategy that came to bear here,” Edelson said.

Young did not remove the statue before the end of his term Dec. 8, as the group had requested in a Nov. 12 letter. They then wrote to Scott, saying they hoped for “a sense of urgency to act.”

“A statue of an enslaver does not reflect the values of our community,” the group wrote in a January letter. “Instead, it is a symbol of oppression and runs counter to our commitment to create a more diverse and welcoming community.”

Green, a 23-year Canton resident, who is Black, has spent hundreds of volunteer hours adding lighting, perennials, rosebushes and other beautification to the park under the plantation owner’s bronze gaze _ an uncomfortable situation he pointed out the night of the statue’s removal.

The 46-year-old, who helps run the nonprofit St. Francis Neighborhood Center in Reservoir Hill and Penn North, wants the O’Donnell statue replaced with a pagoda or other space that could host live music, movie nights or even weddings.

“It’d be nice to have something there that’s useful,” he said.

Cohen said he and the 46th District state lawmakers lobbied for the statue’s removal in support of community members. One constituent described a “sense of terror and intimidation in her backyard,” he said.

“In this moment of soul-searching,” Cohen said, the idea of putting a “slave owner on a pedestal was incredibly offensive and traumatic for people in our community. We want a community that is welcoming and inclusive, and this man is sending the wrong symbol.”

Removing the statue isn’t about sweeping the country’s negative history under the rug, Cohen said, so much as not actively honoring those whose legacy the neighbors reject.

“We get to determine who gets put on a pedestal,” he said. “To my mind, it is not John O’Donnell.”

The alliance hosted a virtual conversation Tuesday night on racial segregation with Lawrence T. Brown, former Morgan State University associate professor and author of “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America.”

Members next hope to explore removing O’Donnell’s name from the park, the street and a public housing development. They’ll solicit ideas for what should replace the statue. Green thinks they’ve provided City Hall with a good model for how to handle such situations.

“We showed the right way to do it,” he said, “by reaching out to the community, doing our homework, doing our research, forming committees within the community, and working as a team.”

 

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