Statues of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were moved into the Capitol building for their symbolic unveiling Monday night in in Annapolis, Md. — AP Photo/Brian Witte

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — At a time when states are debating the removal of Confederate monuments, Maryland is adding bronze statues of two of the state’s famous black historical figures to the Maryland State House.

The statues of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were unveiled Monday night in the Old House Chamber, the room where slavery was abolished in Maryland in 1864.

“It’s a really incredible, incredible, moment,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said, as he told senators about the upcoming event last month.

While the commissioning of the statues was put in motion several years ago, their arrival coincides with new leadership in the state legislature, including Maryland’s first black and first female speaker of the House and the first new Senate president in more than three decades.

Tubman escaped from slavery to become a leading abolitionist who helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. Douglass also escaped slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He went on to become an author, speaker, abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights. His autobiography, published in 1845, was a best-seller that helped fuel the abolitionist movement.

The statues aren’t the only recent examples of the state taking steps to reflect its rich black history.

Last month, a portrait of a black female lawmaker replaced one of a white governor who had been on the wall for 115 years. The painting of Verda Welcome, who was elected to the state Senate in 1962, is the first portrait of a black person to adorn the Maryland’s Senate walls.

During the unveiling ceremony, Ferguson, who became Senate president last month, recalled a letter he received from an 8th grader in Baltimore several years ago. The student wrote she was saddened she did not see anyone who looked like her in the paintings that decorate the State House.

“We’ve heard a lot about change in these chambers over the last few days, and portraits are, I admit, less impactful than our elected leaders, but the public display of portraits is meaningful,” State Archivist Tim Baker said during the ceremony. “Images have an importance that transcends the painted canvas.”

Mary Sue Welcome, the late senator’s daughter, said during the unveiling of her mother’s portrait that she was struck by how much more diverse the legislative body has become since her mother served in office.

“When I was a little girl I used to come to these chambers — and to the one across the hall — and I would look around and the color was a lot different than it is now,” Welcome said. “The coloration is so absolutely beautiful now.”

Maryland also has removed painful reminders of its past in recent years.

In 2017, the state removed a statue of Roger B. Taney, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery and denied citizenship to African Americans.

State officials voted to remove the Taney statue days after a woman was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a man rammed his car through a crowd of people who were there to condemn hundreds of white nationalists who were protesting the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Virginia continues to have some of the country’s most prominent displays of Confederate monuments in its capital city of Richmond. But in December a large bronze sculpture of a young black man in a hoodie astride a horse was permanently installed on the lawn of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The “Rumors of War” sculpture was previously on display in New Yorki’s Times Square and is artist Kehinde Wiley’s response to Confederate monuments in the U.S. and the South in particular.

Recently, a conservative Republican lawmaker, irked that Democrats might mess with Virginia’s Confederate monuments, filed a bill that boiled down to a dare: If you want to take down statues, start with one of your own.

House Bill 1305 calls for ridding Richmond’s Capitol Square of a 10-foot statue of Harry Flood Byrd, the former Democratic governor, U.S. senator, kingmaker and segregationist who dominated Virginia politics for 40 years.

“It’s kind of like playing chess,” said Republican Delegate Wendell S. Walker of Lynchburg, Virginia, who hoped the bill would make Democrats who just gained control of the House and Senate think twice about removing any statues. “You’re just calling somebody’s bluff.”

Turns out, some Democrats think Walker’s bill is a great idea. Byrd, a towering figure who modernized state government and observed strict budget discipline as governor from 1926 to 1930, was also the architect of Virginia’s policy of “massive resistance” to school desegregation in the 1950s and ’60s.

Now Walker wants to kill his bill, fearing that Democrats may not only pass it but use it as justification for the removal of other monuments. Last week, Democrats moved to keep his legislation alive — at least for now.

The Associated Press

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