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Activists call to rename the Francis Scott Key Bridge because he owned enslaved people

Attorney Daryl Jones, of the Transformative Justice Coalition (left), with Carl O. Snowden, convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders, address the renaming of the Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore.
Dee Dwyer for NPR
Attorney Daryl Jones, of the Transformative Justice Coalition (left), with Carl O. Snowden, convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders, address the renaming of the Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore.

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland – It's a rainy evening on a recent weeknight, but that didn't stop people from gathering for the monthly meeting of the Caucus of African American Leaders (CAAL), a nonprofit that promotes human rights in Maryland. Inside the Wiley H. Bates Legacy Center the vibe is electric and warm.

"What an incredible moment in history we find ourselves in," says Carl Snowden, welcoming the crowd of about 60 people. Snowden is a civil rights activist who heads CAAL and his group is pushing for the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore to be renamed.

Daryl Jones walks to the podium to rousing applause.

"I'm legal counsel for the Caucus of African American Leaders," he says. "I'm also one of the folks that is leading the charge to change the name of the Francis Scott Key Bridge to appropriately be named after Parren J. Mitchell."

Mitchell was the first African American elected to Congress in Maryland. He was born in Baltimore and earned a purple heart as an officer in the 92nd Infantry Division in WWII.

Former Maryland Democratic Congressman Parren Mitchell holds a press conference in 1986.
/ Afro Newspapers/Getty Images
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Afro Newspapers/Getty Images
Former Maryland Democratic Congressman Parren Mitchell holds a press conference in 1986.

Speaking on behalf of the Mitchell family, Senator Michael Mitchel (MD-D) tells NPR, “we are honored that they would consider the name of my uncle, but it is important that the wishes of the public be considered in the process.”

And that's precisely the process CAAL is calling for, Snowden says, "we want public hearings."

He says, "it's going to be a long battle. We are well aware of the bigotry. But we believe we will prevail."

He says his group and others around the country have set precedent. For example, he says that in 2017, CAAL pushed to remove the Roger Taney statue. "The statue in front of the statehouse was there for over 100 years, but we were able to convince the governor and the Maryland General Assembly to take it down."

Roger Taney was the fifth Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who's remembered mostly for Missouri's Dred Scott decision in 1857 that upheld U.S. slavery and declared that enslaved people were not citizens.

In the wee hours of March 26, the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed as the Dali, a container ship, struck one of its piers, leaving six dead and disrupting commuting patterns.

In this aerial image, the steel frame of the Francis Scott Key Bridge sits on top of a container ship after the bridge collapsed in Baltimore on March 26. It collapsed after being struck by the Singapore-flagged Dali container ship, sending multiple vehicles and people plunging into the frigid harbor below.
Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
In this aerial image, the steel frame of the Francis Scott Key Bridge sits on top of a container ship after the bridge collapsed in Baltimore on March 26. It collapsed after being struck by the Singapore-flagged Dali container ship, sending multiple vehicles and people plunging into the frigid harbor below.

How the Francis Scott Key Bridge got its name

Ben Womer, a retired steelworker and history aficionado in Baltimore County, founded The Dundalk -Patapsco Neck Historical Society in 1970.

Jean Walker, a member for 20 years, is its current president. She opposes the bridge's name change.

"It was named for history happening here," Walker says. "And I'm sorry if for some people that name is offensive."

"If Ben Womer were alive, I think he would be very upset" about the proposal, she says.

The bombardment of Fort McHenry by British forces on September 13, 1814. The defense of the fort inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the American national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner".
/ Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
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Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
The bombardment of Fort McHenry by British forces on September 13, 1814. The defense of the fort inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the American national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner".

Ben Womer knew that Francis Scott Key had watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry from a ship in the War of 1812 and that it became Key's inspiration to write the poem that became "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Key was also a lawyer and politician in the area who grew up on his family's plantation. Later, Key and his wife also owned enslaved people.

Construction of the 1.6 mile bridge began in 1972, and it opened to traffic in 1977. The iconic bridge quickly became part of the fabric of Baltimore, spanning the lower Patapsco River area and the outer Baltimore Harbor Port.

Womer lobbied the Coast Guard and state officials to have the new bridge named after Key, says Marcus Womer, a grandson, who also opposes a renaming.

Francis Scott Key (1779-1830) was a lawyer who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner." He and his family owned enslaved people in Maryland.
/ Heritage Art/Getty Images
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Heritage Art/Getty Images
Francis Scott Key (1779-1830) was a lawyer who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner." He and his family owned enslaved people in Maryland.

"My grandfather fought really, really hard to get that name put on that bridge," Marcus Womer says. His heart dropped when he saw images of the collapsed structure. "That's been in my family history forever. And then all of a sudden, somebody says we should change the name of the bridge. No."

Womer, 53, signed a petition, sponsored by the Frederick County Conservative Club Inc., to keep the bridge named after Key.

"We're taking the statues down because it had something to do with something bad," Womer says, referring to confederate monuments and statues around the country. "And if we continue to do that in society, everything will be gone. There will be no history left, and if we forget history, our children won't know anything about it."

A challenge to history as it's written

Rivka Maizlish, a historian at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), disagrees about the historic value of confederate symbols.

"These symbols are not part of history," she says. "It's about honoring people who fight for white supremacy. These are symbols of intimidation and pressure."

She oversees a project called "Whose Heritage: Public Symbols of the Confederacy" at the SPLC.

"These symbols are part of an organized propaganda campaign that began after the Civil War," but many have been erected throughout the decades afterward, Maizlish says.

"We may have lost the war, but the war did not decide Negro equality," Maizlish quotes from a book called "The Lost Cause," published in 1866 by confederate Edward Pollard.

To Maizlish that line means, "We can still win the cause of white supremacy through symbols and ideology after the war."

The genesis of "Whose Heritage?" came about after a white supremacist massacred nine people inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, says Maizlish.

Earlier this month the Shenandoah County School Board in Virginia voted to reinstate the names of confederate generals to some schools. The names were changed in 2020 amidst reaction to protests after the George Floyd murder by police in Minneapolis.

But still, Maizlish sees more progress than setbacks, she says.

Student-led effort wants Key's name off a building

"In recent years, there's been concern from students and faculty and other stakeholders that Key's legacy does not fit neatly with the values of the University of Maryland," says UMD history Prof. Richard Bell.

The building that houses the Department of History and the College of Arts and Humanities at the UMD in College Park is named after Francis Scott Key.

Bell's expertise is in the period between the U.S. revolution and the Civil War, and he's working with students on examining Key's legacy and drafting a recommendation to the university's Board of Regents. It has the power to rename any building on campus, Bell says.

While most people understand Key's legacy solely in the context of the poem that became the national anthem, many historians understand Key's legacy in a different context, Bell says. Key was known "as one of the great proponents of a scheme of segregation, of deportation for free African-Americans in the early 19th century known as colonization."

Bell argues that many contemporary scholars consider the deportation tactics "a racist force designed to deport people who white Americans regarded as less than." He noted that Key was one of the founding members of the American Colonization Society, an organization founded in 1816 to remove free Black people from the United States.

"Renaming buildings so that they're no longer named after slave holders or segregationists is not rewriting history," Bell says. "History is, in fact, what's being recognized and grappled with here."

Bell says that it is healthy for a society to re-evaluate its relationship to the past.

"The conversations that we had about the past are always changing, always evolving, as we today ask new questions about the past, as new scholars bring their own agendas into the archives, as the present shapes the way we think and feel about the past," Bell says, choosing his words carefully.

He's not endorsing any names, Bell says, but notes, "there's no building on campus currently named after Frederick Douglass, the greatest Marylander who ever lived."

Government leaders speak

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore declined an interview with NPR, but through his press secretary, he shared a written statement.

"My mind right now is fully focused on making sure we can bring comfort to these families, making sure we can get this channel reopened, making sure we can take care of these port workers, and rebuilding the bridge," the statement reads.

The agency with power to change the name of the bridge, the Maryland Transportation Authority, did not respond to an NPR request for an interview.

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Hershey (MD-R) wrote in an email to NPR, "I don't think it's appropriate to exploit a tragic event to make a political aspersion that the vast majority of Americans would find disrespectful and down right unpatriotic."

Hershey says he has suggested to others in the Maryland legislature that any proposed federal funding appropriation be contingent on the bridge remaining named for Francis Scott Key.

Carl Snowden (left) and attorney Daryl Jones (right), stand next to the Wiley H. Bates bust. Bates was born an enslaved man and rose to become a businessman and civic leader in Annapolis, Md.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Carl Snowden (left) and attorney Daryl Jones (right), stand next to the Wiley H. Bates bust. Bates was born an enslaved man and rose to become a businessman and civic leader in Annapolis, Md.

Their petition calls for change

Back at the Caucus of African American Leaders (CAAL) meeting at theWiley H. Bates Legacy Center in Annapolis, people mingle while dining at a buffet that includes fried chicken, pasta salad, baked beans and assorted desserts.

Daryl Jones argues that though many prominent figures owned enslaved people, some reversed their positions.

"Benjamin Franklin realized the wrongness of slavery," Jones says. "Not only did he free his slaves, but he became one of the leading advocates for abolishing slavery in the United States. That's the type of person you honor."

The Caucus is lobbying state officials, including Gov. Moore's office, and the general assembly.

The group has also set up anonline petition.

Juanita Cage Lewis, founding member of the Caucus of African American Leaders, attends a meeting at the Wiley H. Bates Legacy Center in Annapolis, Md., to discuss the renaming of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Juanita Cage Lewis, founding member of the Caucus of African American Leaders, attends a meeting at the Wiley H. Bates Legacy Center in Annapolis, Md., to discuss the renaming of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore.

Juanita Cage Lewis is a founding member of the Caucus. She was born in Cumberland, Md.

Cage Lewis is no stranger to civil rights work. She and her sister integrated Virginia Avenue School, an elementary school in Cumberland in 1955. She moved away and when she returned home in 1973 she realized the chapter of the NAACP was no longer active. She got a group of people together to reopen it, she says.

She laments the tragic collapse of the bridge, but notes that it presents an opportunity to correct history.

"I don't think it's going to be easy," to convince authorities and the community to change the bridge's name, she says. But she has no doubt that if people take the time to learn about who Francis Scott Key really was, they too would support the name change.

"It's offensive for African Americans," she says.

"That's my way of honoring my ancestors," she says of her work pushing for a name change. "I owe it to them because of what they had to endure at the hands of people like Francis Scott Key. Things that happened during their time that were wrong."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.
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