Posted on May 7, 2024

Advocates, Historians Urge Rethinking Key Bridge Name ‘For Generations Yet Unborn’

Maya Lora, Baltimore Sun, May 7, 2024

The future rebuilding of the Francis Scott Key Bridge will create an opportunity for Maryland to rethink what it stands for, some advocates, legislators and historians say.

Local, state and federal officials have already vowed to rebuild the steel structure that once spanned the Baltimore skyline and collapsed March 26 when the cargo ship Dali crashed into it in the early morning hours, sending six construction workers to their deaths.

Some advocates have demanded that part of that process include rethinking what the rebuilt bridge should be called. Originally known as the Outer Harbor Bridge, it was named after Key in 1976 before opening in 1977.

While the bridge’s namesake is probably best known for writing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Key was also a slaveholder who found himself fighting both for and against Black freedom in his lifetime.

Addressing that contradiction with a name change isn’t about erasing the past said Carl Snowden, convener atop the Caucus of African American Leaders. It’s about fighting for the future, Snowden said, and that’s especially true in this case, as the six victims of the collapse were all Latino.

“They died literally on that bridge,” Snowden said. “To rebuild a bridge to someone who did not see people of color as their equal, I think sends the wrong message — not for this generation, but for generations yet unborn.”

William G. Thomas III is one of three authors who spoke on a panel April 17 at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Key’s alma mater. All the panelists said the state should consider renaming the Key Bridge.

“Naming is an opportunity for the community to consider who it honors and who it commemorates,” Thomas said. “I think naming a bridge or a building … should tell a story that helps us understand who we are and call forth a vision of who we aspire to be.”

The Caucus of African American Leaders, a statewide consortium of civil rights organizations, unanimously passed a resolution in April calling for renaming the bridge after the late U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, the first Black Marylander elected to Congress.

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The new bridge would fall under the purview of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which means any naming or renaming process would require approval from that entity and the Maryland Board of Public Works, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) said in a statement.

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The bridge could also bear a new name if the General Assembly took legislative action.

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But state Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Democrat representing Baltimore City and a long-standing proponent of racial justice who pushed for the removal of a statue of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, is ready to open up dialogue as part of a larger national movement to “remove these vestiges and symbols of racism, slavery, white supremacy.” Carter was in part referring to the removal of some Confederate statues from public view, including in Baltimore, and pushback against those efforts, which have sometimes turned violent.

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Carter said a rename could not only be possible but “necessary” in 2025, though she noted support will be needed from the Legislative Black Caucus, federal officials and the public.

“I think that it is still very much taken for granted … how much so much of the history that we are forced to accept as all of our history is actually a history that was counter to the interests of Black people,” Carter said.

But the renaming effort is also sure to receive some pushback. U.S. Rep Andy Harris, a Republican representing Maryland’s 1st Congressional District and a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said in an emailed statement that he supports retaining the bridge’s current name and “will seek to require it as a condition of any federal funding.”

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