TURNING TIDES
Baltimore magazine|February 2021
After decades of silence, the EASTERN SHORE begins to RECKON with its difficult HISTORY.
LYDIA WOOLEVER

ON AN ORDINARY WEEKEND in downtown Easton, the brick sidewalks are mostly empty, save for the occasional local out for a stroll or a handful of tourists taking in the iconic Colonial architecture of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. With only 16,000 residents, it’s the second-biggest town on the peninsula, a quaint yet popular stopover for folks from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., on their way to Ocean City.

But on a Saturday afternoon this past August, a commotion could easily be heard from several blocks away as some hundred people gathered at the Talbot County Courthouse. Wearing masks and holding signs, their voices carried as they answered a call of “Whose courthouse?” with a unified “Our courthouse!” from a grassy lawn in front of the looming government building, built in 1794.

Four days earlier, the Talbot County Council had convened inside the South Wing, sitting along a dark wooden bench separated by plexiglass dividers beneath the official seal of “Tempus Praeteritum Et Futurum,” or “Times, Past and Future,” as they voted on an issue that had grown increasingly urgent as months wore on. Earlier in the summer, after a thousand protestors rallied outside on Washington Street following the police killing of George Floyd, calls for Black Lives Matter quickly dovetailed with a demand to remove the “Talbot Boys.”

In front of the courthouse’s grand entrance, the bronze statue, erected in 1916, depicts a young Confederate soldier carrying a Confederate battle flag atop a granite base that bears the names of 96 local Confederate soldiers and the inscription “1861-1865 C.S.A.,” or Confederate States of America.

“George Floyd’s death tugged at the conscience of this country, and people began to connect it to Confederate monuments and the messages that they send,” says Richard Potter, an Easton native and head of the local NAACP, who as a boy was mesmerized by the childlike soldier, sensing he must have done something special to receive such a significant perch. Only years later would he become rattled by its history. “The courthouse is meant to be a place where we can go and get a fair and just trial. And yet to get inside, Black people have to walk past a monument that says you belong in bondage.”

This was not the first time that Easton residents had called for the statue’s removal. In 2015, Potter made the request after a white supremacist murdered nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Following a closeddoor vote that violated Maryland’s open meetings law, the council unanimously chose to keep the statue where it stood. Calls came again after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left one protestor dead in 2017, then again in 2020, when some 700 letters, including one from this writer, flooded the inboxes of the county councilmembers, as similar monuments came down all across the United States.

It was these events, and further conversations with community members, that inspired Council President Corey Pack to propose the removal of the Talbot Boys last summer, even after voting to keep it in 2015, at the time reasoning that it was history. “A man who fails to change his mind will never change the world that’s around him,” said Pack, the council’s first and only Black member, as the conversation grew contentious leading up to the vote that August evening.

Other council members—Chuck Callahan, Frank Divilio, and Laura Price—expressed opposition to the resolution, pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic, limited public input, and even the inability of the deceased Confederate honorees to be present. Price, in a previous meeting, also resisted the adoption of a diversity statement. “We have a lot of other problems here—I don’t think that this is one of them,” she said, referring to county government, but for many, speaking directly to the larger failure of the town, state, and country to reckon with its racial past and present.

In the end, the council voted 3-2 to keep the Talbot Boys— believed to be the last Confederate monument, outside battlefields and cemeteries, on public property in Maryland.

“The removal of this monument would not change the history of this county,” said councilmember Pete Lesher that evening. The local historian co-sponsored the resolution for removal, despite being a descendent of men listed on the statue’s base. “But the number who have expressed their feelings on this matter have made it clear that this is indeed a powerful symbol, and our actions on it tonight, I’m afraid, sadly speak of who we are now as a county, and the extent to which we have not yet changed.”

Within a matter of minutes, a protest emerged outside of the council’s windows, with demonstrators chanting, “Take it down,” “Vote them out,” and “Black Lives Matter,” causing the meeting to end early.

A DECADE AGO, a different monument sparked debate in Easton, an increasingly sophisticated center of art and dining on the Eastern Shore. In 2011, a bronze statue of Frederick Douglass, arguably the region’s most famous son, was also erected on the courthouse lawn, but only after seven years of infighting, including objections from local veterans, and the margin of a single council vote under the condition that it not exceed the size of other statues, aka the Talbot Boys.

The famed abolitionist was long seen as a sort of balance to the Confederate soldier, whose cause sought to uphold slavery, as detailed in the C.S.A.’s founding documents. But today, the Douglass statue tells a broader story—his raised fist and defiant stance serving as a potent reminder of the horrors and hardships overcome by Black people in this town, and across the Eastern Shore.

Douglass was born into slavery around 1818, just 12 miles from where his monument now stands, becoming one of the hundreds of enslaved African Americans on the Wye Plantation, the largest of its kind on the Shore. “It was in this dull, flat, and unthrifty district . . . surrounded by a white population of the lowest order . . . and among slaves, who seemed to ask, ‘Oh! What’s the use?’ every time they lifted a hoe, that I . . . was born, and spent the first years of my childhood,” wrote Douglass in his memoir, My Bondage and My Freedom.

In many ways, it can be said that the African-American experience began in this region—on the Chesapeake Bay—when the first captured Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. But it wasn’t until changes in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the expansion of tobacco plantations by the early 1700s that slavery took full root in Maryland. Tens of thousands of men, women, and children of African descent were brought by boat to tidewater ports that speckled the shorelines, tangling race and economics in a brutal web for centuries, particularly on the Eastern Shore—a 110-mile stretch of low-lying hinterlands separated from the rest of the state by the continent’s largest estuary.

But by the time of Douglass’ birth, declining tobacco prices and overworked soil caused local farmers to shift to less labor-intensive grains, with many choosing to save money by hiring seasonal workers over supporting enslaved people year-round. Coinciding with a growing abolitionist movement that flourished in towns like Easton thanks to congregations of Quakers and Methodists, some slaves were released from bondage, but thousands of others were doomed to be sold from the Chesapeake to the booming cotton plantations of the Deep South as part of the Second Middle Passage, sometimes referred to as slavery’s Trail of Tears.

On the Eastern Shore, these changes created a unique scenario, where the remaining enslaved people—some 35,000 in 1820—lived alongside some of the state’s largest populations of free Black people, and where some of the oldest African-American communities still stand today.

By its very nature, says Patrick Nugent, deputy director of the Starr Center for American Studies at Washington College in Chestertown, the Eastern Shore is in the middle of nowhere, but also in the middle of everywhere, close to urban centers like Baltimore, D.C., and Philadelphia, and yet isolated, geographically, with slavery in many ways at its historical center. For that, he says, to this day, “It is a crossroads of American politics, environments, and cultures that has led to a really complex history.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine