Anne Arundel’s black heroes live among us as statues with legacies to pass down and with lessons to teach
story by Ben Miller • photos by Cathy C. Miller
We build monuments and memorials to remember our past and to gain meaning from where we’ve been. As we learned from Alex Haley, the man who took America on a Roots journey, it is healthy “to look at our past and commemorate those parts of it which are symbolic and build from there.”
Haley himself is honored at Annapolis City Dock. Other African American memorials testify to the legacy of our community, as well. Last week, we visited the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sculpture at Anne Arundel Community College. This week we look at four other statues: Two, including Haley, are known for their heroic contributions to American history and culture; two are commemorated for the time they spent living in our capital city of Annapolis.
Dr. Aris T. Allen
You likely know Dr. Aris Allen by name if you’ve ever driven the boulevard named in his honor from Route 50 to Forest Drive. Near this access road, tucked away at the eastern end at the corner of Chinquapin Round Road and Forest Drive, you can see him face to face. His little-noticed bust stands in a pleasant plaza with benches and plantings, a contrast to the bustling traffic.
Stop and look and the bust of Allen, sculpted by Mariah Kirby-Smith of Camden, South Carolina, is imposing and, with an accompanying plaque, speaks of an ordinary man who pulled himself up from poverty to become an Annapolis hero.
This first public sculpture of an African American in Annapolis was unveiled in 1994. Shelia Finlayson, who was delivered by Allen, her family’s doctor, co-chaired the committee to name the road and headed the committee to commission the bust. Finlayson, a high school English teacher, stands for election this month as alderwoman for Ward 4 in Annapolis. Years ago, Finlayson helped Allen run his own campaign for the District 30 House of Delegates.
“Allen was instrumental in the decision of where the road was placed,” said Finlayson. The original proposal to “widen old Forest Drive would have disrupted a community and wiped out homes,” she said. Allen worked with the State Highway Administration to change the road’s location.
She sought to honor Allen as a source of lasting inspiration. “With his difficult upbringing, Allen is a model for perseverance, for overcoming obstacles,” Finlayson said.
Born in Beeville, Texas, in 1910, Allen dropped out of school in the eighth grade when classmates made fun of his torn clothes. He did not earn a high school diploma until he was 27. He went on to attend Howard University and graduated from its medical school. Allen came to Annapolis to practice medicine in 1945.
Allen was intent on practicing medicine, but he soon began serving the community in other ways. He helped Mount Moriah Church build a new church. He pushed for public housing to replace homes without plumbing or heating. He headed his children’s school’s Parent Teacher’s Association and was appointed to the Anne Arundel Library Board. As a school board member, he oversaw the difficult period of the integration of Anne Arundel County schools.
Allen entered politics as a Republican and served in the Maryland House of Delegates and the State Senate. He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1978. Diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, Allen took his own life in 1991.
Allen’s life and his character come through in a biography by Jude Thomas May, Achieving the American Dream, The Life of the Honorable Aris T. Allen, M.D.
The bust and boulevard are appropriate honors for this man who ministered to people as a doctor and gained prominence as a lawmaker.
Photographs in May’s book remind us that Allen was a tall, dignified man, and the sculpture is a good likeness.
The bust is not easily seen from the road. The memorial has been vandalized in the past, and people have called for moving it to a more visible location.
Finlayson explained that a spot in the median was intended for the sculpture, but the committee realized that Allen’s wife, Dr. Faye Allen, would not be able to walk to the memorial. The committee also wanted a quiet setting for reflection. The little park satisfies both criteria.
Time will diminish the honor of the road naming. Drivers know Aris T. Allen as a road, often jammed with traffic, and not a man.
Yet, that our community named this prominent road for a black man speaks to our recognition of those who succeeded in two worlds: the world of segregation and the new world of integration and opportunity opened up by those such as Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall.
Off College Avenue near the Governor’s Mansion, the State House and busy state office buildings, the Thurgood Marshall Memorial plaza, dedicated in 1996, invites you to sit and contemplate.
An evocative sculpture by Toby Mendez of Knoxville, Maryland, depicts Marshall not as most of us know him, as an aging Supreme Court Justice, but as a crusading young attorney dressed for business in a topcoat, suit and tie and carrying a briefcase. He looks as if he is about to enter court.
In front of Marshall sits a young, upright man, Donald Gaines Murray. In 1935, Marshall argued successfully in the Maryland Court of Appeals (once housed near the site) that Murray be admitted to the University of Maryland School of Law. He had been refused because he was black.
A young boy and girl also seated on a stone bench before Marshall represent the millions of black school children entitled to an equal education by the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka et. al. That decision outlawed segregation in schools. Marshall successfully led the case before the court on which he later served.
Marshall’s highest achievement was being the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court after having been the first black solicitor general of the United States.
But this memorial is different. It honors the intelligent, forceful lawyer who in legal case after legal case challenged segregation and discrimination in the United States and demanded equal justice under the law for all people.
The prominence of the memorial and the dynamic quality of the sculpture fittingly honor the man that journalist and Marshall biographer Juan Williams, of Washington, D.C., calls “the most important black man of the [20th] century.”
The memorial’s location in the midst of the bustle of state government appropriately honors this Maryland native. Text at the monument’s base and within the plaza chronicles Marshall’s life and his fight to fulfill for all Americans the promise of “equal justice under the law.”
As long as we believe in the rights, freedoms and protections guaranteed by the United States Constitution, we’ll feel at home with this monument.
Wiley H. Bates
Our newest memorial to an African American hero honors businessman Wiley H. Bates. A bronze bust of Bates, by sculptor Toby Menendez who also created the Thurgood Marshall sculptural group overlooks the courtyard of the Wiley H. Bates Heritage Park on Smithville Street, just off West Street between the 1100 and 1200 block.
With a suit and vest, watch fob and Masonic pin, Bates looks every bit the serious, hard-working and frugal businessman and community leader who, in his own words, depended on “pluck” rather than “luck” to succeed within a segregated society.
It is appropriate that Bates be honored here. Born a slave in North Carolina in 1859, he succeeded in business in Annapolis and donated $500 for the building of an all-black high school in Anne Arundel County. The high school, opened in 1933, was named for him. Bates died in 1935, but the school lived on as a lasting source of opportunity and pride for black Annapolitans and county residents.
The Bates Heritage Park occupies the building and grounds that once housed the Wiley H. Bates High School. To the credit of the Anne Arundel County government and the school’s graduates who pushed the project, the once-derelict building reopened in September, 2006. The heritage park is once again a source of pride and activity. The renovated complex has ball fields, a Boys and Girls Club, an educational center, a senior center and senior apartments. It abuts a nature trail.
As Bates succeeded within a segregated society, so did the students and teachers at the Wiley H. Bates High School. The days of legal segregation are gone, thanks to these and other heroes, but the strength of those who achieved despite this oppression can inspire us all as we meet Wiley Bates and his enduring deeds.
Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley
The Alex Haley memorial is the most welcoming monument in Annapolis. At City Dock, the memorial looks out upon Annapolis harbor. Since its dedication in June, 2002, the memorial has been seen and enjoyed by millions, who sit alongside Haley to hear his stories.
This memorial speaks without words. Depicted by Ed Dwight sculptor of Martin Luther King at Anne Arundel Community College an older man, Alex Haley, is telling a story. Three bronze children sit and lie at his feet listening attentively. The monument welcomes you and your children to sit there, too. You can sit and watch the water and the boats and other people. This is a comfortable place.
There are messages here. Older visitors tell stories to children. Families share their own histories.
Only with reading plaques along the story wall do you learn more. Haley was a writer. He wrote a book called Roots about his ancestors and family.
His first American ancestor, Kunta Kinte, was captured in Africa, brought to Annapolis and sold into slavery, here, at this very spot.
Kunta Kinte’s descendants were also enslaved. Slavery ended, but racial oppression did not. Haley’s family struggled against segregation and racism. More important, Haley’s family held together, passing heritage, courage, tradition and strength down through the generations.
Honored here are Haley, Kunta Kinte and all others brought to America in bondage, “who by their toil, character and ceaseless struggle for freedom have helped to make these United States.”
This endearing memorial was a vision of racial reconciliation of another Annapolis hero, Leonard Blackshear, who died last year at 63. It grew from the goal expressed by Alex Haley when he wrote, “Find the good and praise it.”
Haley found the good in his family and his ancestors’ struggles. He praised those struggles in his book Roots, published in 1976, and the television mini-series, which fired a national interest in genealogy, especially for African Americans tracing their roots.
This memorial honors Haley, who died in 1992, but Haley and the Roots phenomenon will recede in people’s memories. Yet these sculptures and the quotations along the story wall will continue to speak the eternal message of the value of knowledge passed from one generation to the next. That’s quite a story.
The Meaning of Memorials
These monuments to black Americans do more than praise these individuals. In building these memorials, we honor those denied their freedom, like Kunta Kinte, those who chronicled their struggles as did Alex Haley, those who fought for equality, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. And we honor those black communities that supported Wiley H. Bates and Aris T. Allen.