by David S. Rotenstein
In the aftermath of a violent weekend in Charlottesville, Va., the nation has been immersed in a massive advanced course in American history and linguistics. History because Charlottesville laid bare the origins of Confederate monuments that have little to do with the Civil War and linguistics because ordinary people have been challenged to decode the meanings embedded in the commemorative landscapes where they live, work, and play.
The nationwide campaign to excise the celebratory signs of the Lost Cause, monuments depicting Johnny Reb, General Lee, et al., and the Confederate battle flag, sputtered along for decades before 2015 when a white supremacist fond of wrapping himself in Confederate iconography named Dylan Roof murdered nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church. After that, the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina State House grounds and communities around the nation began removing monuments to the Lost Cause. One of those monuments was a statue in Rockville, seat of Montgomery County, Maryland.
Within weeks of the Charleston murders, the public and some of their elected officials began calling for the Rockville statue’s removal from public space. Nearly two years later, early one Saturday morning and with no public notice, the statue was placed on a flatbed truck and moved from Rockville to a private property elsewhere in the county. In the spring of 2017, Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett cut a deal with the owners of a Potomac River ferryboat (named for a Confederate general) to take possession of the statue.
The Rockville statue appeared at the height of the first of two periods in the twentieth century when racial tensions coincided with an increase in the public display of Confederate iconography: the early twentieth century enactment of Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
This essay examines the route Montgomery County’s Confederate soldier statue took from the county seat to a neo-Confederate stronghold in Washington’s outer suburbs. Drawing from media reports and interviews with county officials, I will lay out the alternatives Montgomery County leaders weighed before relocating the statue. I will then turn a critical eye on the decision to give an organization that appears to celebrate the Confederacy not just a prized object but control over the narrative attached to the artifact and how it is (re-)contextualized.
Johnny Reb in the Courthouse Square
Rockville’s statue, dedicated to the “heroes of Montgomery Co., Md.” who protected the “Thin Gray Line,” was erected in 1913 and paid for by local chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the United Confederate Veterans. The Rockville statue appeared at the height of the first of two periods in the twentieth century when racial tensions coincided with an increase in the public display of Confederate iconography: the early twentieth century enactment of Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Montgomery County at the turn of the twentieth century was mostly rural and agricultural. It had a population of 32,089 people in 1910: 22,846 whites and 9,235 blacks. Rapid and intensive suburbanization began sweeping through the southern part of the county as the demand for housing in neighboring Washington intensified with the growth of the federal government. The northern part of the county remained mostly agricultural until the Cold War. It was a place dominated by Old South Democratic bosses like E. Brooke Lee who sought to maintain a tightly regimented racial hegemony through Jim Crow laws and private sector segregation that kept whites and blacks apart in residential subdivisions, restaurants, movie theaters, and schools.
By the time Rockville’s bronze statue was placed on its granite pedestal, Montgomery County had two school systems and more than two dozen communities where African Americans lived without basic amenities found in white communities: home water hookups, sewerage, and paved roads. Though Maryland remained in the Union during the Civil War, Montgomery County retained strong historical and social connections to the South.
Sending Johnny Reb Packing
Within weeks of the June 2015 murders in Charleston, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett began exploring ways to get rid of the Rockville statue. Leggett has been Montgomery County’s executive since 2006. He was initially elected in 1986 as the first African American to serve on the Montgomery County Council. Despite his long history in county government and working in Rockville, Leggett told me in a June 2017 interview that he didn’t know about the Confederate statue until after becoming county executive.
To Leggett, the statue conveyed two messages. “One, just basically that this is a warrior statue like any other statue that you have,” he explained. “On the other side, well this is a reminder of the Confederacy here in Montgomery County.”
Leggett “only saw three ways to resolve the situation besides doing nothing. He could order the statue be destroyed; he could try to move it to a nearby history museum; or, he could order that it be recontextualized.”
Up until 2015, however, Leggett said that he really didn’t pay much attention to the statue. After the murders, Leggett was determined to find a new home for it. He found himself facing multiple constituencies and he only saw three ways to resolve the situation besides doing nothing. He could order the statue be destroyed; he could try to move it to a nearby history museum; or, he could order that it be recontextualized. His resolve to remove the statue hardened after it was vandalized in July 2015 by a Black Lives Matter graffiti tag. To protect the statue from future assaults that would cost the county money to clean up, Leggett ordered the statue encased in a wood enclosure.
Two factors guided Leggett’s decision-making. The statue had to be removed from public property and it had to remain in Montgomery County. The former was informed by his personal feelings about the statue and comments he had received from people who wanted it removed. The latter derived from his consultations with community members and local historic preservation advocates who argued that that statue had historical significance.
Initial negotiations with the Montgomery County Historical Society to relocate the statue to a nearby historic house museum collapsed and the search was widened. Exasperated after a proposal to move the statue to a park in his district (and that the controversy was dragging on with no end in sight), Councilmember Tom Hucker (D-Silver Spring) decided to see if there was a market to sell the statue.
He placed an online advertisement on Craigslist.
In March 2017 Leggett announced that a deal had been struck to relocate the statue to White’s Ferry. Established in the eighteenth century on the Potomac River, which connects Montgomery County with Loudon County, Va., the crossing was the site where Confederate troops frequently crossed into Maryland. After the war a Confederate veteran bought it and in 1946 its current owners acquired the business and they named their boat the Jubal Early.
Messaging the Past, Reflecting the Present
White’s Ferry met Leggett’s criteria and the statue was moved early in the morning on July 22, 2017. Throughout the two-year effort to move the statue, Leggett repeatedly claimed that the statue conveyed the wrong message about Montgomery County’s past and its present values. “The statue does not represent a balanced view of our County’s sacrifice during the Civil War,” Leggett said after it was moved.
Leggett said that he knew the ferry’s owner before the deal, but he told me in June 2017, “I did not know a great deal about them.”
Before the transaction with White’s Ferry, Leggett didn’t consider the implications of transferring an artifact freighted with such powerful symbolism to an entity that would control not only where it was placed but the narratives attached to it—its very message.
“I’m not concerned about that,” Leggett said in our interview. “I evaluated it, it was framed wrong to begin with.” He added, “And so if I had to choose between that reminder and maintaining it and not putting it in the hands of those who would have a different view about it, then I’m going to choose to remove it.”
Hucker, the councilmember who tried to find a buyer online, also hadn’t considered the consequences of putting the statue in a space where neo-Confederate values dominate. “Is White’s Ferry run by a neo-Confederate group? That’s what I don’t know anything about,” Hucker said in June 2017. “If there’s evidence that they’re a neo-Confederate group or something then obviously that would be concerning to me.”
The symbolic connotations attached to White’s Ferry weren’t lost on Montgomery County residents with a better grasp of history than some of the county’s leaders. After the violence in Charlottesville, one resident replied to a Facebook post by Councilmember Hucker about the Rockville statue’s removal: “So, I’m crossing the Potomac and MoCo welcomes me with a confederate statue. How crazy is that?”
After Montgomery County moved its statue and the events in Charlottesville three weeks later, all of Baltimore’s Confederate monuments were removed and Maryland’s governor ordered a statue of Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney be removed from the statehouse grounds. In the week after Charlottesville, statues throughout the United States were removed by decree and by protestors.
There are strong arguments and passions on all sides about what to do with Confederate monuments. Historian James Loewen doesn’t equivocate: there’s no place for them in public spaces and they all need to be removed. Other historians, geographers, and anthropologists argue for a more measured approach. Many favor adding context to existing objects: new interpretive signage and art that completes the Civil War narrative that includes the enslaved peoples’ stories.
Removal without consideration of the historical context that led to their placement and the social wounds inflicted by white supremacy that are continually reopened in communities around the nation does nothing to resolve structural racism and heal those wounds.
The geographers Derek Alderman and Joshua Inwood argue for a more creative approach. Removal without consideration of the historical context that led to their placement and the social wounds inflicted by white supremacy that are continually reopened in communities around the nation does nothing to resolve structural racism and heal those wounds. “Erasing or simply removing those symbols perpetuates forgetting the past, and presumably moving forward (for some) without engaging in true memory-work,” they wrote in an article about removing Confederate flags.
In an interview on NPR after Charlottesville, Alderman put a finer point on his written work: “I would love to see the whole process, the monument removal and discussion move into … a Memory-Work of Racial Reconciliation,” Alderman told interview Joshua Johnson. “That this is not the period to end the sentence, as one of my colleagues mentions, to the debate, but is actually just a comma that leads us on to taking on bigger and bigger issues of white supremacy.”
Beyond the comma lies some hard work. It includes frank discussions about the past and the present. It demands more than symbolic action like removing a statue. It is an opportunity to catalyze social change at the intersection of public space, history, memory, and social justice. Public intervention in spaces that commemorate white supremacy is a necessary first step, but support for grassroots movements to find truth and justice in communities once ruled by Jim Crow is essential for meaningful and enduring change.
Reconciling the Past, Present, and Future Beyond the Comma
Erasure defines how Montgomery County tends to produce history and historic preservation. Once a rigidly segregated place and now increasingly more diverse, there are commemorative landscapes throughout that reproduce segregation and that overtly and unconsciously celebrate white supremacy. Some things like the Confederate statue are visible; others, like the omission of African Americans from history books, historic preservation reports, and public art are less visible but no less harmful.
Rockville’s Confederate statue isn’t simply “surplus county property,” as Councilmember Hucker described it in our June interview. It’s an artifact with a powerful message and tremendous cultural baggage. Now that message is controlled by an organization that has a ferryboat named for a Confederate general and the statue sits in a prominent space overlooking the ferry ramp where passengers disembark. It’s one of the first things people see entering Montgomery County from Loudon County, Virginia.
It may not be “public” in terms of ownership but the new space renders the statue significantly more visible.
The Confederate statue went from a hidden space next to the county’s old courthouse (a historic preservation organization’s headquarters) to a highly visible space at a gateway to the county. It may not be “public” in terms of ownership but the new space renders the statue significantly more visible. Whereas in Rockville there was nothing ambiguous about who owned the statue and who controlled its message, at White’s Ferry it now occupies space that begs the questions: Who owns it, the county or the private sector and what is its message?
Montgomery County’s treatment of its Confederate statue is an opportunity for other communities to learn from our mistakes. As the rush to remove Confederate statues, monuments, and other neo-Confederate iconography proceeds apace, there is space for leaders in other places to take a step back and reconsider their options. The spectrum between doing nothing with them and wholesale removal is great, with many options in that space for education, reconciliation, and healing. The challenge, as geographer Alderman said, is to change the moment from a period to a comma and think beyond the moment to create a more honest history and a more informed future.
David Rotenstein is a Silver Spring, Maryland, historian. He writes on gentrification, race, and history and is the proprietor of a small public history consulting practice focusing on urban and suburban history.
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 Nancy Kurtz, “Confederate Monument,” Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties Form (Crownsville, Md.: Maryland Historical Trust, 1994).
 Southern Poverty Law Center, “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy” (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2016), https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/whoseheritage_splc.pdf.
 1910 Census: Volume 1. Population, General Report and Analysis.
 Ike Leggett, interview by David S. Rotenstein, June 28, 2017.
 Perry Stein, “Confederate Soldier Statue in Montgomery Spray-Painted with ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Washington Post – Blogs; Washington, July 27, 2015, https://search.proquest.com/docview/1702098830/citation/7518CF34043842F2PQ/1.
 Ike Leggett, “Statement by County Executive Ike Leggett on Vandalism to Confederate Veterans Statue in Rockville,” Press Release, (July 28, 2015), http://www2.montgomerycountymd.gov/mcgportalapps/Press_Detail.aspx?Item_ID=13132; Editorial Board, “Respond to History, Don’t Whitewash It,” The Washington Post, August 9, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/respond-to-history-dont-whitewash-it/2015/08/09/5ed57bc0-3ba4-11e5-8e98-115a3cf7d7ae_story.html.
 Cameron Luttrell, “Controversial Confederate Soldier Statue Listed On Craigslist,” Rockville, MD Patch, February 24, 2017, https://patch.com/maryland/rockville/controversial-confederate-soldier-statue-listed-craigslist.
 Michael F. Dwyer, “White’s Ferry,” Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties Form (Crownsville, Md.: Maryland Historical Trust, 1973), https://mht.maryland.gov/secure/medusa/PDF/Montgomery/M%3B%2016-6.pdf.
 Ike Leggett, “Statement by County Executive Ike Leggett On the Moving of Montgomery County’s Confederate Statue,” July 27, 2017; Bill Turque, “Montgomery County Moves Confederate Statue from Spot near Courthouse,” The Washington Post; Washington, D.C., July 25, 2017, sec. METRO.
 Leggett, “Statement by County Executive Ike Leggett On the Moving of Montgomery County’s Confederate Statue.”
 Tom Hucker, interview with David Rotenstein, May 26, 2017.
 Jess Bidgood et al., “Confederate Monuments Are Coming Down Across the United States. Here’s a List.,” The New York Times, August 16, 2017, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/16/us/confederate-monuments-removed.html.
 Nate Croll, “Commission Continues Talks of Removing City’s Confederate Monuments – Baltimore City Paper,” Baltimore City Paper, October 29, 2015, http://www.citypaper.com/blogs/the-news-hole/bcpnews-commission-continues-talks-of-removing-city-s-confederate-monuments-20151029-story.html.
 Modupe Labode, “Reconsideration of Memorials and Monuments,” AASLH History News 71, no. 4 (2016): 7–10; Dell Upton, What Can and Can’t Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).
 Joshua F. J. Inwood and Derek Alderman, “Taking Down the Flag Is Just a Start: Toward the Memory-Work of Racial Reconciliation in White Supremacist America,” Southeastern Geographer 56, no. 1 (March 18, 2016): 11, doi:10.1353/sgo.2016.0003.
 “A Monumental Problem,” The 1A (Washington D.C.: NPR, August 16, 2017), http://the1a.org/shows/2017-08-16/a-monumental-problem.
 Inwood and Alderman, “Taking Down the Flag Is Just a Start,” 11.
 Joshua F. Inwood, “How Grassroots Truth and Reconciliation Movements Can Further the Fight for Social Justice in U.S. Communities,” National Civic Review 105, no. 3 (2016): 56–57.