Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun / TNS / Getty Images

Confederate bygones: Baltimore hoping to rename Robert E. Lee Park

Municipal officials considering name change in light of Charleston events and recent riots over death of Freddie Gray

Across the country, public landmarks such as statues, flags and street names honoring prominent Confederate figures have come under criticism in the aftermath of Dylann Roof’s mass killing of nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Now, in one of the most prominent shifts so far, Maryland’s Robert E. Lee Park — more than 450 acres of green space bearing the Confederate commander's name, located in Baltimore County but owned by the City of Baltimore — is likely to be renamed in the near future, according to local officials.

“We are in communication with the city to see about moving forward on a name change,” said Ellen L. Kobler, spokesman for Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. “Last week with the terrible tragedy in Charleston, [Kamenetz] went back and said, ‘Where are we? Let’s get this moving.’ The city just has to say ‘yes.’”

Kobler explained that under a use agreement dating to 2009, the city (a separate jurisdiction) holds naming rights to the park, which contains Lake Roland, a reservoir connected to the city’s water system.

“Particularly given the recent national focus on issues surrounding civil rights, it feels increasingly inappropriate,” to keep the name “Robert E. Lee,” Kobler told Al Jazeera, adding that “Lake Roland Park” was the county’s favored replacement.

While this idea has periodically surfaced in the past, the mass shooting in Charleston, has given momentum to the effort. Baltimore City officials, including City Council President Bernard Young, have pledged to work with Kamenetz and explore the next steps in the name-changing process.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan expressed support this week for a ban on issuing license plates featuring the Confederate flag in the state, which has also experienced recent vandalism on Confederate statues in several places with “black lives matter” and related graffiti.

While Baltimore may be falling in line with a national trend, the impact of riots after the death of Freddie Gray seems to have lent the drive considerably more political urgency. Gray, an African-American, died from inuries sustained while in police custody, triggering protests against police brutality and violence that created national headlines.

The Baltimore Sun newspaper came out Tuesday with a staff editorial calling for the change.

“Lee was, rather famously, a Virginian, not a Marylander, and he has no particular connection to the area where the park now sits,” the article argued, referring to the general who only briefly lived in Baltimore. “Indeed, it's something of a historical accident that the park was named for him.”

However, Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore NAACP, has cautioned against overzealously purging the Civil War border state of Maryland — which remained with the Union but kept its slaves — of symbols that can teach younger generations about the past.

“We have to learn our history and understand it,” she told the Baltimore Sun.

The local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans declined to comment specifically on the issue of renaming Robert E. Lee Park, saying in an email to Al Jazeera: “At the request of our national governing body, over the next several days during the funerals for the murder victims in Charleston … and out of respect for their family members, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and specifically the Maryland Division will not give any interviews.”

Jay Barringer, head of the organization’s Maryland branch, added that he condemned “the heinous crimes committed by that monster and we reject in the strongest manner his repugnant, racist philosophy which in no way represents the Confederate flag or our ancestors.”

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