Maryland House speaker wants to repeal Civil War-era state song

June 23, 2020

By: Ovetta Wiggins

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Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore) said Tuesday that she plans to lead the chorus in calling for the repeal of the state’s Civil War-era state song, which has lyrics urging Maryland to secede and join the Confederacy against the “Northern scum.”

Jones, who successfully pushed last week for the removal of a plaque at the State House that was sympathetic to the Confederacy, said she wants to do away with “Maryland, My Maryland,” a song written by Baltimore native and Confederate sympathizer James Ryder Randall in 1861, the first year of the Civil War.

The song has been the subject of much debate for more than 40 years in Annapolis, with lawmakers repeatedly trying unsuccessfully to repeal it.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and ongoing protests over systemic racism have renewed calls across the country to remove the monuments to and statutes of historical figures who represent a legacy of slavery and racism.

“The time to do it is now,” Jones, the state’s first African American House speaker, said of removing relics of the country’s racist past.

A spokesman for Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said he supports repealing or revising the song. A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said: “Should the legislature change its mind and successfully pass this bill, the governor will carefully review the legislation.”

After the deadly Unite the Right protests and counterprotest in Charlottesville in 2017, the University of Maryland’s marching band stopped playing the song, which is set to the tune of “Lauriger Horatius,” because of its ties to the Confederacy. The band previously played the song during its football pregame show.

In 2016, the Senate passed legislation to replace the song. Two years later, it passed a bill to redesignate the song as the “historical state song,” a compromise by those who wanted to completely scrap it. Neither measure received a vote in the House.

When asked about the past inaction on the bill, Jones said: “It’s a different speaker now who happens to be African American.”

Almost 30 years after then-Va. Sen. L. Douglas Wilder denounced the singing of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” for its racist language, Virginia lawmakers moved to demote that state’s song to the status of “state song emeritus.” The state adopted a new song, “Our Great Virginia,” in 2015.

Maryland formed an advisory panel five years ago to study its state song and offer recommendations, which included replacing the song, amending it and doing away with a state song for 10 years. But no action was taken.

Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery), who sponsored bills in 2016 to abolish and replace “Maryland, My Maryland” and in 2018 to redesignate it, said she first introduced the measure in homage to her predecessor, former senator Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery).

“I used to think that it was trivial as compared to issues around education, transportation, poverty and health care, but I think symbols are important, and that’s why I agreed to sponsor it,” she said.

Kagan said she knew that getting a repeal bill passed in the Senate was unlikely during the tenure of former Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

“With a Senate president who is deeply connected to Maryland’s history, the prospects of passing something significant was remote,” she said. “I think with new leadership and a new era, it will be the time to revisit the issue. … It’s past time.”

Jones offered her opinions about the state song while defending her push to remove the plaque, which she described as an “affront to people of color.”

She urged its removal last year, one of her first actions after taking office. But the four-person panel of the Maryland State House Trust at the time rejected removing the plaque and instead voted to spend $2,400 to buff out a Confederate flag at the top of it.

The bronze plaque was installed inside the State House in 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement. It commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Civil War by honoring people who fought on both sides of the bloody struggle.

On Friday, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R), who sits on the panel and voted for removing the plaque, asked the board to vote on designing a new plaque that “accurately reflects Maryland’s history during the Civil War, when it was a divided state in the nation’s fight against slavery.”

The board voted 2-2 on Rutherford’s proposal. With no majority, no action will be taken on the proposal.

“The way it looks over there is good to me,” Jones said of the empty space on the wall outside of the House chamber where the plaque once hung.