06 Apr From The Talbot Boys to the Self-Made Man
Our journey through American history is often an exploration that reveals not just the cultural artifacts of the past that have been hidden, but those that have been taken away. On our way to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Site, we decided to make a stop in Easton, Maryland. My friend National Geographic photographer Kris Graves and I went searching for the space that was once occupied by the state’s last Confederate Civil War memorial.
Our drive from Washington D.C. to this little town north of the Chesapeake Bay began just before dawn. As the sun rose in the east, we were relieved to drive against the flow of traffic as cars with their headlights still shinning in our eyes creeped slowly past us into our nation’s capital. It was a beautiful spring morning with cherry trees in full bloom. Just the day before we had visited the home of the great abolitionist and scholar Fredrick Douglass. There we met with Robert Stanton, the first Black director of the National Park Service and the former superintendent of the National Capital Parks-East historic sites. His portfolio had also included the homes of women’s suffrage and civil rights icon Mary McLeod Bethune and Carter G. Woodson, the creator of Black History Month.
In our interview, Director Stanton, 83, reminded me that he and Mr. Douglass were introduced to the National Park Service in the same year. “You’re probably thinking, Bob I know you’re old, but I didn’t think you were that old,” he laughed in a resonant baritone. “I was appointed to my first duty station at Grand Teton National Park in 1962, the same year that the Douglass home was made a National Monument.” I chuckled along with his favorite joke, grateful to be in the presence of this wonderful man who has witnessed so much modern history.
On our tour of nearby monuments and battlefields we were looking to find a few of the many obscure and often overlooked references to Black Americans. In our exploring we discovered something unexpected. We had about 90-minutes of road time ahead of a 9:AM appointment with Diane Miller, the National Program Manager of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. With a margin of error that spanned less than half an hour, we risked making a minor detour to see something that was no longer there.
“It’s right off the highway,” Kris said. “We can be there and gone in no time.”
I was game.
Erected in 1916, a statue once stood in front of the Talbot County Courthouse in memory of the 95 residents of Easton and surrounding towns who fought and died in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. The monument called The Talbot Boys, as seen in surviving photographs, depicted a young white man in military uniform bearing the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia, known commonly as the Confederate Flag. Members of this community, that include the descendants of the enslaved, objected to the presence of this memorial at the seat of local government. It was especially egregious because at this location near the courthouse steps was where the enslaved were bought and sold.
“To Black Americans who enter the courthouse in particular, the statue sends an unmistakable message that justice is not blind, and that the law does not serve and protect them equally,” the plaintiffs sited in court filings. “That was the intent of the monument all along.”
Several unsuccessful legislative attempts to have the statue removed were made starting in 2015. The community here was outraged after the racially motivated murder of 9 Black partitioners on June 17 that the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. At the time, Talbot County leaders claimed that taking the monument down would be disrespectful to the descendants of Confederate veterans who still live nearby. They tried again in 2017 after the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12th. On that day, a group protesting the removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee incited a riot that caused the death of 3 and more than 49 serious, but not fatal, injuries. Carry torches as they marched through the streets, the rioters chanted “You will not replace us!”
Calls for taking down the Talbot Boys statue were renewed after the murder by police officers of George Floyd, a Black resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2020. Citizens of Talbot County, part of an organization called the Move the Monument Coalition, raised more than $80,000 in 2021 to have the statue relocated to the Cross Keys Battlefield. A private memorial park in Harrisonburg, Virginia managed by the nonprofit Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. This site is not far from Shenandoah National Park.
Kris and I were at the Talbot County Courthouse for less than 15 minutes. We stopped across the street for coffee and buttery croissants before continuing the drive to Church Creek and our meeting at the Harriet Tubman site. Of course, we didn’t see the Talbot Boys memorial. Instead, we found a life-sized statue of Fredrick Douglass.
The famed orator was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Cordova, Maryland in 1817, just nine miles from where we stood. It was in Easton that Douglass had made his first unsuccessful escape attempt in 1836. He was jailed at the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office then only one block away. After the Civil War and Emancipation, as a free man, Douglass gave a rendition of his “Self-Made Men” speech on November 25, 1878, on the floor of the main courtroom of the Talbot County Courthouse in front of an all-white audience. The statue that stands now on the front lawn illustrates his impassioned delivery at the podium.
“Self-made men … are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results.” ~ Fredrick Douglass
These fiery words spoke of the self-determination that is possible in a country where every citizen has the freedom of equal opportunity. But in the unfriendly surroundings of Talbot County, Douglass endured the indignities of bondage and servitude. It was only after having liberated himself, fleeing to Boston and raising an army of formerly enslaved Black men to fight a Civil War that he would return to the place of his birth a man of his own making.
What a fitting place to host a memorial. But when the Douglass statue was first commissioned in 2004, the initiative was met with resistance. Local veteran organizations believed that the courthouse grounds should be reserved for the commemoration of those who served in the armed forces. In addition to the Talbot Boys statue there was also a memorial to those who served in Viet Nam, which remains today. That begs the question, should those who stood and fought in open rebellion against the United States of America be honored with a monument?
I have often heard it said that the removal of Confederate memorials is an erasure of American history. When we choose to commemorate an historical event or a famous character of the past with a bronze statue on a marble pedestal, we are reflecting for all to see the things in our society that we value most. Made of durable materials these monuments like the values they represent are made to last. But those value can change.
“To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history,” wrote the American History Association in a statement following the events of 2017. “A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honored in a community’s public spaces.”
The Talbot Boys memorial was dedicated in the same year that the National Park Service was formally established in 1916. Best known for the protection of federal land and our natural resources, the Park Service is also charged with preserving our national heritage. In public spaces across the United States at the turn of the last century, at the beginning of the Jim Crow Era of legal segregation, monuments were erected to celebrate the glory of so-called Confederate heroes. Then President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, born in 1856 in Staunton, Virginia, espoused an ideology of white supremacy. Though not on a federally managed site, the Talbot Boys statue was emblematic of a growing belief in the nobility of the cause that the 95 men of Talbot County fought and died for.
Despite the many advances we had made as a nation since the Civil War and through the Reconstruction Era, there seemed to be a persistent desire to reframe the institutions of our racist past as benign or even benevolent. In blatant defiance of the emerging Civil Rights Movement through the 1960s, those sentiments were reflected in our monuments. But should the lost cause of the Confederacy be preserved as well? Unless we are prepared to honor the principles for which they stand, should not these moments be removed from public display?
The Talbot Boys statue remains on view at a private location where anyone so inclined can go to see it. The memory of those 95 fallen soldiers will be preserved and their contributions to our history, though unpleasant, will endure. All human beings are deserving of dignity in death. We might even pay our respects to the sincerity of the beliefs they held so dear that they were prepared to give up their lives. But there can be no honor in preserving the ideals of a cause that would deprive the freedom and liberty of others and preserve the institution of slavery.
The statue of Fredrick Douglass that stands today at the Talbot County Courthouse was put in place in 2011. The two monuments stood across from one another for more than a decade, a glaring contrast of conflicted ideals. When it was removed in 2021 some might say that the Talbot Boys were replaced by this self-made man. My only regret in having the statue taken away is the absence of any reference to it ever having existed at this site. Today all that remains is a patch of mulch-covered soil ringed with well-manicured shrubbery. On this early spring morning the courthouse was closed. Perhaps inside there is a plaque or display that tells the story of the statue and why it is no loner there. I can only hope. But the failure to explain the circumstances of its place in Talbot County history to those who will likely never see it will deprive future generations of the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of our past and the means through which we might correct them.
Just as we are eager -and rightly so – to share the great accomplishments of Fredrick Douglass in Easton, Maryland, we must also celebrate the relocation of the Talbot Boys statue. The citizens of this community banded together to make known their discontent with the status quo and make a substantive change in the telling of their history. They deserve a great deal of credit for acting to peacefully take away this divisive symbol not through violence, but equitable compromise. In doing so they have declared for residents and visitors alike that they no longer ascribe to values of white supremacy and racism. That is surely deserving of celebration, but hardly worth erecting yet another statue. We must look instead beyond the monuments and delve more deeply into the details of past events that are not so easily seen.
Stories of the past most certainly should mark our triumph over oppression, but they must also acknowledge our best efforts to share a complete and comprehensive account of the atrocities we would rather forget and never speak of again. As Kris and I make our way across the country we will continue to find these remarkable narratives in the glaring light of contradiction. Through the course of our journey all will be unhidden.