It was President John Quincy Adams, while visiting here in the fall of 1827, who dubbed Baltimore, “The Monumental City.” But it was Miss Massicott, back in the spring of 1956, who first mentioned that nickname to my fifth grade class at Howard Park Elementary School.
In either case, it was long ago when Baltimore was putting up monuments instead of tearing them down.
We’ve become part of a national movement of political re-evaluation. Most of the tearing down is long overdue, especially when it comes to those traitors who fought for the Confederacy and yet somehow found themselves honored instead of cursed 155 years after the Civil War was fought.
But I wish we could go back to an earlier state of mind around here and start putting up statues again, to honor some really deserving people.
Statues help us define ourselves as a people, and in Baltimore we’ve lost a sense of who we are and whose accomplishments and values we wish to hold onto and pass along to our children.
That’s what Miss Massicott had in mind. We had lots of monuments, she was saying, because we had lots of remarkable people whose work helped make Baltimore in the post-war years the sixth biggest city in America, throbbing with life.
Since then, this city has lost one-third of its population and most of its industrial and commercial core. We’re financially strapped and emotionally stressed and murderously lashing out at each other.
We can’t remember the last time we had leaders to believe in.
Putting aside the current coronavirus curse, when so many things seem to stand still, the 21st century is sped up beyond anything we’ve ever known. Technology has blurred our sense of so many things, including our common humanity.
Memorials make us slow down for a moment. They tell us, this is a person worth remembering, and here’s why her or his accomplishments should matter to you.
Whoever tore down the 36-year-old marble statue of Christopher Columbus in Little Italy on the Fourth of July and dumped it into the Inner Harbor acted as if they were the only judge and jury on the explorer’s life.
Was there greatness in this man? Obviously. Was there awfulness as well? Absolutely.
And those who have objected most strenuously to the vandalism understand this fully. They know Columbus’s imperfections. They weren’t paying tribute to the man who led genocide but to the remarkable master navigator and his Italian heritage.
What to do with the Columbus statue is a debate worth having, but those who tore it down bypassed the debate.
That’s not what we do in a civilized society.
I happen to be on their side. Who wouldn’t find Columbus’ treatment of Native Americans abhorrent? But a public debate on the statue would not only give both sides a chance to vent, but act as a kind of public civics lesson as well.
But let’s get back to the previous point: It’s time to start a new round of monuments in “The Monumental City.” We need new reminders, new definitions set in stone of who we are as a people and why we should consider ourselves attached to a great history.
The Columbus statue has been torn down, but what about some other great Baltimoreans of Italian heritage — the D’Alesandros?
House Speaker Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi has become one of the towering women of American history. Her old hometown should be bursting with pride and show it.
And her father and brother, Old Tommy and Young Tommy D’Alesandro, each a mayor of Baltimore, should have their own statues, because it’s hard to think of a family that has devoted more years than the D’Alesandros to public leadership.
Unless, of course, you think of the Mitchell family, especially the generation that produced the gladiator who helped change the nation’s laws on race, Clarence Mitchell Jr. And his wife, the civil rights crusader Juanita Jackson Mitchell, and her mother, Lillie Carroll Jackson, mother of the civil rights movement in Maryland. And Clarence’s brother Parren, the first black U.S. congressman from Maryland.
All had profound impact on the history of their time — and ours.
But Baltimore swells with remarkable people.
There ought to be a monument to Abel Wolman, the engineer who found a way to clean our drinking water a century ago, killing micro-organisms that caused life-threatening diseases. He spent 75 years working in environmental engineering and public health. Think of that the next time you drink a clean glass of water.
There ought to be a monument to Eubie Blake, who helped create the ragtime beat that was the precursor to jazz. And speaking of great musical people with roots in Baltimore, how about jazz greats Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway and Chick Webb, or the magnificent Anne Brown, the original Bess in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”?
Or Rosa Ponselle, one of the great operatic voices of the last century, who became a guiding light of the Baltimore Opera Company, or Joseph Meyerhoff, who carried the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on his back for years.
There ought to be a monument to Helen Taussig and Alfred Blalock, the physicians whose work created pediatric heart surgery. Thanks to them, thousands of “blue babies” once condemned to an early death found new life. And let’s not forget Vivien Thomas, whose pioneering labors at Johns Hopkins Hospital made Taussig and Blalock’s work possible.
The list could go on and on: Barbara A. Mikulski, whose political leadership helped protect working people; Helen Bentley, the great champion of the port that built a city; R. Adams Cowley of Shock-Trauma; Carl Murphy, who led the Afro-American newspaper through its glory days, when the Baltimore dailies were ignoring black people; Glenn L. Martin, who put 53,000 people to work to help win World War II; the great novelist Anne Tyler; Rachel Carson, whose “Silent Spring” sounded the earliest warning signals on the destruction of our environment; and Barry Levinson and John Waters, who have given the world a look at Baltimore’s sweetest charms.
Would statues to such people be expensive? Of course. But we manage to find money for statues to athletic heroes. Surely there’s money out there to honor those who’ve enriched our lives and history in so many other ways.
Their lives tell us we’re descended from greatness, and we can carry on in their image.
That’s what John Quincy Adams found so moving in 1827, and Miss Massicott stressed in the spring of 1956. We’re called “The Monumental City” for a reason.
It’s time, once again, to build monuments here and not just tear them down.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).