In November 1864, lawmakers gathered at the Maryland State House to ratify a new constitution prohibiting slavery. On Monday, more than 150 years after this momentous event, lawmakers convened at the Annapolis state capitol to unveil bronze statues honoring abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, both of whom were born into slavery in Maryland.
As Erin Cox reports for the Washington Post, the statues are installed inside the capitol’s Old House Chamber—the same room where Maryland formally abolished the institution of slavery. Tubman and Douglass are depicted as they might have looked on this momentous day in the state’s history. Douglass wears a long coat, holding a copy of his abolitionist newspaper Douglass Monthly; Tubman, rendered in a “historically accurate 4 feet, 10 inches,” according to Emily Opilo of the Baltimore Sun, gazes at the front of the room, where the legislation would have been signed.
The state marked the statues’ unveiling with a ceremony attended by officials and descendants of Tubman and Douglass, among others.
“A mark of true greatness is shining light on a system of oppression and having the courage to change it,” said Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones during the event, as quoted by the Post. “The statues are a reminder that our laws aren’t always right or just. But there’s always room for improvement.”
Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland’s Dorchester County in approximately 1820. She escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 but made multiple trips back to Maryland, at great personal risk, to usher around 70 other enslaved people to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Douglass, who was born in 1818 on Maryland’s eastern shore, fled northward in 1838. He became a passionate orator for the abolitionist cause, launched an anti-slavery newspaper, and wrote an autobiography that became “highly influential” in the battle for abolition.
The movement to honor these remarkable figures at the Maryland State House began in 2016, in part to “dilute the pro-Southern flavor of the State House that took shape in the decades following the Civil War,” wrote Michael Dresser of the Baltimore Sun at the time. A focal point of the debate was a monument to Roger B. Taney—primarily remembered for writing the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case, which ruled that African Americans could not be considered citizens of the United States—that sat on the grounds of the State House.
The Taney statue was removed in 2017, but other controversial markers remain. A 1964 plaque, for instance, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Civil War and pays tribute to both Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the conflict. Last October, after objections were raised to the memorial, the State House Trust voted to remove the plaque’s Confederate flag. But language honoring Confederate soldiers has remained. During Monday’s unveiling ceremony, the plaque was draped with a black cloth, according to the Post.
There is no evidence that Tubman ever stopped by the State House, but Douglass is known to have visited the building in 1874; he reportedly paced in front of a painting of George Washington while reciting the president’s 1783 speech resigning as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
“This doesn’t change the past,” Ivan Schwartz, the sculptor who worked on the new monuments, tells the Sun, “but it does begin to open a room with a different view.”
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