BALTIMORE — Some local leaders predict that 2021 will be the year that Maryland rids itself of a Confederate-themed state song after nearly half a century of trying.
“Chances are exponentially better that this time we’ll get that song repealed,” said Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore City branch of the NAACP.
“There are white supremacist overtones and undertones in the lyrics of ‘Maryland, My Maryland.’ Symbols are important, because they are a marker of the direction that a governmental body or institution is going in,” Little said. “I am highly encouraged that Speaker (Adrienne A.) Jones has taken this important step as the leader of the Maryland House of Delegates.”
Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat who is the first woman and person of color to lead a chamber in the General Assembly, called earlier this week for “Maryland, My Maryland” to be repealed when the legislature reconvenes in January.
“Maryland, My Maryland” is set to the tune that most people know as “O Christmas Tree.” Its lyrics are drawn from an 1861 poem by James Ryder Randall, who was mourning a friend who’d been shot as Union troops marched through Baltimore.
The poem’s opening line: “The despot’s heel is on thy shore,” alludes to President Abraham Lincoln. Another lyric refers to “the northern scum.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans has not adopted a position on the proposal. But Paul C. Gramling Jr., commander in chief of the Richmond, Virginia-based organization, thinks the controversy is one more example of political correctness run amok.
“My personal stance is that I don’t think the song should be changed,” he said. “This madness of people being offended by everything around them has got to stop. Liberals have too much time on their hands. I wish they would get a life and just leave history alone.”
But Randall’s poem has been controversial from the beginning, according to a 2018 essay written by Martha S. Jones, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University.
In an article for the History News Network at George Washington University, Martha Jones notes that the Black activist William Matthews published a critique of the nine-stanza verse in 1863 in the Lyceum Observer, Baltimore’s first Black newspaper.
“Prominently situated on the paper’s first page, it was a biting rebuke to pro-slavery and pro-Confederate factions within the state,” she wrote, adding that, even in 1863, the song “was already understood to be a secessionist anthem.”
The NAACP’s Little thinks that pro-Nazi sentiment in 1939 played a role in getting “Maryland, My Maryland” adopted as the state song at the time.
“The song became law at the height of Nazi fervor,” Little said, “when there was a lot of white supremacist feeling on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Starting in 1974, lawmakers have tried at least nine times to either update the existing lyrics or to replace the Civil War anthem with a new song that they think better reflects modern Maryland and the people who live here. Nine times, they have failed.
David Armenti, education director for The Maryland Historical Society, said he doesn’t know how many other governing bodies have revoked symbols such as seals, flags or songs. But, he said, “it’s an uncommon occurrence.”
The Historical Society itself hasn’t taken a stance on Adrienne Jones’ proposal, a spokeswoman said.
In 2017, former Mayor Catherine Pugh had four Confederate-linked statues removed under the cover of darkness. At the time, she said the statues were removed at night to avoid the violence that accompanied protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Confederate statues from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., have been torn down in recent days. Activists continue to try to remove the Confederate flag from Mississippi’s state flag.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump said he would issue an executive order protecting statues from being torn down.
“I will have an executive order very shortly. All it’s going to do is reinforce what’s already there, but in a more uniform way,” Trump told reporters.
But Martha Jones thinks that sentiment has shifted statewide, and that a 10th effort to find a new state song may succeed.
Partly, that’s because the leadership of both houses agree that “Maryland, My Maryland” has got to go. Senate President Bill Ferguson has said he’d support legislation to establish a different state song.
And partly that’s because Martha Jones finds a growing attitude of inclusiveness in three recent changes this year to the Maryland State House.
She said she’s encouraged by the installation of a statue of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the hanging of a portrait of the late Verda Freeman Welcome (who in 1962 became the first Black woman in the nation elected to serve in a state Senate), and the removal of a plaque that paid tribute to both Union and Confederate soldiers.
“There’s good reason to think that this … might be the year in which ‘Maryland, My Maryland’ might be retired,” Jones wrote in an email. “Retiring the song is overdue, and now is the right time.”
Changing the state song is not censorship and would not interfere with free speech protections, according to Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland. Anyone wishing to sing “Maryland, My Maryland” can do so at any time.
“The ACLU supports the elimination of any and all state-sponsored symbols of slavery and oppression,” she wrote in an email. “A song that reflects the values of the Confederacy, with its unrepentant white supremacy and total disregard for the humanity of Black people, has no place in our Maryland.”