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In tense times, Md. town considers how to handle problematic historical exhibits

Civil War reenactors march during their reenactment of Pickett's Charge, Friday, July 3, 2020, at Gettysburg National Military Park, in Gettysburg, Pa., as Confederate flags fly in the background.

CAROLYN KASTER/AP

By DAVID WILSON | Ryan Marshall The Frederick News-Post, Md. | Published: July 4, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Chris Haugh knows his job involves the delicate balancing of the forces of history.

Mount Olivet Cemetery, where Haugh is the community relations and historic preservation manager, had become part of a larger national controversy this week, after a statue on a memorial over a mass grave of more than 400 Confederate soldiers was torn down and defaced with red paint, and two other memorials nearby were also defaced.

The final resting place of more than 40,000, Mount Olivet is a place of reflection and peace, Haugh said.

But it's also home to more than 700 Confederate dead, and he knows that makes the cemetery a piece of history as well.

"We're kind of a museum without walls," Haugh said.

As America honors its history on July 4, the nation is embroiled in a furious debate over how to remember some of the men who made that history.

It's a problem with unique resonance for Frederick, whose native son Francis Scott Key is one of those whose legacy has come under attack. Late last month, a statue of Key was torn down by protesters in San Francisco, and his history as a slaveholder has drawn criticism.

Most famous for writing "The Star-Spangled Banner," Key's memory in Frederick includes a shopping mall and a minor league baseball team, along with other establishments and markers around town.

Born at the Terra Rubra farm in what is now Carroll County but was then part of Frederick County, Key lived in Frederick for several years as a young lawyer, and is buried at Mount Olivet, where a large statue of him stands over his grave.

The reality of the current moment hit Mount Olivet this week.

Haugh admits that he's nervous that someone will try to damage the Key statue, given the political and racial nature of what is happening in the country right now.

People are protesting for all the right reasons, Haugh said, but as someone interested in history he also worries that we still need to learn from the past.

To examine an issue like slavery through a modern lens isn't always practical.

"When we look at statues and stuff, we're expecting perfection," he said.

The debate over statues and other markers comes at "a time of national reckoning," said Frederick Alderman Roger Wilson in an email last week.

It's a time "when we as a nation are re-examining our history with open eyes, and seeing the truth of things for what they are," he said. "And we are finding that many of America's historical figures, though they all had important roles in the building of our country, were often men who said and did things that are unprincipled, unethical, and unacceptable in our modern society.

"Francis Scott Key will always be honored for penning our national anthem, and for other noble acts done in the service of our country. But Key was also a slave-owner, and actively worked against the abolition of slavery. He, like so many others in our history, was a deeply flawed man who nevertheless accomplished great things."

The Key issue isn't the first time Frederick has had to deal with the racist legacies of some of its most prominent citizens.

In 2017, busts of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney and former Maryland Gov. Thomas Johnson were removed from in front of City Hall and moved to Mount Olivet.

In their new homes, the busts were provided with informative plaques, something that Haugh believes the cemetery's board may look at with Key's statue.

There are currently two markers at the statue, one with information about the "Star-Spangled Banner" and another about the Italian immigrant sculptor who was commissioned to create the statue.

The thought of adding context on Key's slaveholding is an interesting one, Haugh said.

Terra Rubra has slave quarters, and Key would have been familiar with slavery from his earliest years, said Mark Letzer, president and CEO of the Maryland Historical Society.

Records show that Key bought his first slave in 1801, Letzer said.

Later, as a U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C., Key targeted abolitionists and worked against the cause of abolition, he said. His sister was also married to Taney, who wrote the Court's notorious Dred Scott decision that slaves were property rather than U.S. citizens.

"[Key] was definitely tied up in that whole world of the time," Letzer said.

There's no doubt that Key was a slaveholder and fought against abolition and free speech, said Del. Karen Lewis Young, (D-Frederick), a former Frederick alderwoman with a master's degree in history from Columbia University.

Lewis Young said she doesn't believe in tearing down statues, and that instead, we need frank, thoughtful discussions about the imperfections of our historical figures.

She would like to see more community discussion and learning about what Key believed, both in school curriculum and other areas.

We should remember the flaws and failings of our history, but also that one of the ways society evolves is by going back and reviewing the past, she said.

Key's fame for writing what became the national anthem shouldn't protect him from scrutiny.

"I think you need to separate the song from the man," Lewis Young said.

One key difference between the Key statue and other monuments at Mount Olivet and the Taney and Johnson busts being at City Hall is that Mount Olivet is privately owned property, a distinction pointed to by Frederick Mayor Michael O'Connor and others.

"History should be told in places where it can be appropriately curated and contextualized," O'Connor wrote in a recent email. "I have come to the conclusion that that is rarely on government/public lands. The last several weeks have given us a tremendous opportunity to think about the legacies of our country and hopefully, as we are seeing with discussions about Juneteenth, military base names, and the confederate flag, begin to reconcile some of the obvious omissions while confronting the realities of a lot of misplaced honors."

Alderman Derek Shackelford also pointed out that the cemetery was private property rather than public.

But on the larger discussion going on in the country, "This is an opportunity for our nation to be truthful about its history and how that has not always been a shining light," Shackelford said in an email. "It is also a time for us to confront how bigotry, hatred and racism should not be celebrated in history or our current time."

The private cemetery has a right to display monuments and symbols that she doesn't agree with, said Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak.

"The past is meant to be remembered, and markers at a cemetery are appropriate ways to do that," she said.

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