More than 20 years ago, sculptor Ed Dwight was thinking hard about the meaning of Alex Haley.
He'd known Haley's brother George but never met the author of "Roots: The Saga of an American Family." So when Dwight designed a memorial to the author's story – how an enslaved teenager named Kunte Kinte arrived in Colonial Annapolis – he thought about the story as much as the man.
Dwight posed three children sitting at Haley's feet, looking up and listening as he shares his American origin tale. They’ve been there since 1999, part of the Kunte Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial.
Today, Dwight’s sculpture group at City Dock is a landmark in sun, snow, flood, and festival. It is as familiar a symbol of Maryland’s state capital as the ancient State House Dome, the Naval Academy, or the annual Christmas boat parade.
Haley is the star of endless tourist photos, Instagram selfies, and visual reminders of worries that the sea is rising around Annapolis. To understand it, you have to know that Dwight has created hundreds of public monuments, a Black artist whose career entwines with the celebration of important moments in the history of Black Americans.
The memorial is something rare, a monument to an enslaved man. It is a foundational moment of the Black community in Annapolis and represents a Black family’s story weaving into the national fabric.
It is the children, though, who unlock Dwight’s hidden message. He wanted to be sure white people get his message – empathy.
“I wanted these statues to represent our suffering, that we can represent our suffering with an amount of dignity,” Dwight said. “Because there’s a whole subset of white people that say, ‘we don’t give a damn about your suffering.’ ”
“My audience is probably 80 percent white. But I wanted it that way.”
I don’t pretend to have any unique insight into the interpretation of statues or paintings. I’m not an art critic.
But when I see the Haley sculpture, it is more than just a representation of the human form. Like other well-known Annapolis sculptures, it holds secret meaning in secondary figures. Each represents us, people in the audience, and helps us see the story told by the artist – even though we may forget them as we walk away.
“The fact that I made those kids look like real kids … put these people in a place where they were very comfortable,” Dwight said. “They weren’t abstracted. They were realistic.”
Like many of you, I’ve thought a lot about sculpture in the last few years. We’re going through a widespread reexamination of public sculpture and the meaning of public art.
Mostly, it’s been white men on horses and pedestals who have gotten the heave-ho. Confederate statues, in particular, were stripped of their cloak of romance and gallantry. Exposed, they were messages sent across the years by Jim Crow America.
Annapolis was no exception. The dour figure of Roger Brook Taney, the Supreme Court chief justice who wrote the infamous Dred Scott opinion on the humanity of Black people, was removed six years ago from its perch outside the State House.
All art is open to interpretation, including Dwight’s at City Dock and others around town.
Sometimes distance helps see things. It took a trip to Mexico for me to see Annapolis this way.
My family decided this was the year we’d take a Christmas vacation. Omicron jitters in tow, we boarded planes from three different parts of the country and rendezvous on the island of Cozumel. The quiet part of the Mexican Riviera is a haven for divers and snorkelers, families, and day-trippers disgorged by cruise liners.
Before the tourists and Mexico, there was the Spanish. They came to conquer, and the island was a first step. It was home to the Mayan deity Ix Chel, the moon goddess of fertility. Starting about 100 AD, Mayan women made pilgrimages from across the Yucatan to the temples to pray about life and children.
Today, tiny temple ruins at San Gervasio are popular with visitors and easier to reach than the grander relics of Mayan civilization at Chichen Itza, Tulum, or Coba.
Just beyond the central district, there’s a monument honoring the introduction of Christianity on the island around 1570. A Spanish priest offers a blessing to a Mayan man at the top of a pyramid. At the bottom, a Mayan woman and girl are carrying food.
The interpretation offered is that they’re bringing an offering, but it looks as if they’re stopping on the way to somewhere else. Turns out, it was oblivion.
While Hernān Cortéz was cooking up plans for the mainland, his priests introduced Christianity while destroying the ancient temples.
Smallpox annihilated any Mayans left by 1600. The Spanish abandoned Cozumel, leaving it to the occasional pirate or fisherman for 150 years.
Know that history, and the monument’s message flips. The priest isn’t the story. It’s the woman and child who bear witness to the end of a religious tradition that lasted more than a millennium.
Something of a loyalist, she was among the spectators in the State House on Dec. 23, 1783, when George Washington resigned his commission before Congress. The leader of the Continental Army could have been a Napoleon or a Caesar. Instead, he turned away from power.
The most personal testimony on this moment comes from Ridout. She and her husband John knew Washington socially, but they waited out the war and its revolutionary fever at their estate across the Severn River from Annapolis.
One month after the event, Ridout wrote about what she saw in a letter to her mother in England. Her letter is at the heart of how we as a nation recall this story.
“He addressed Congress in a short Speech but very affecting many tears were shed, he has retired from all public business & designs to spend the rest of his Days at his own Seat,” she wrote. “I think the World never produced a greater man & very few so good …”
Go into the State House, and you can see Ridout today, looking down from the gallery at Washington’s lifesize bronze – he was 6-feet, 2-inches tall – at the center of the Old Senate Chamber. In 2014 and 2015, her letter was central to an $8 million restoration of the room and the creation of the sculpture.
The secret is in Molly’s face. It’s the face of Rachel Ridout.
She’s Molly’s direct descendant, an eighth-generation Annapolis native who served as the model for StudioEIC in New York, which designed and created the artwork.
Rachel’s family connections to history were well known to the people involved in the project. Her aunt shares a name with their ancestor. Her grandfather and father were architectural historians whose professional lives focused, in part, on the State House.
It's not clear who decided the family should be involved, but the artists considered Ridout, her older sister, and a younger cousin for the model. She won because she lived in New York.
“I won the humorous lottery of who gets to model for a statue,” Ridout said.
Ridout was in her mid-20s. Molly was 38 on the day Washington resigned. Artists at StudioEIC worked to make her face older. They dressed her in an outfit like Molly might have worn. They took photos of her in various poses and made a cast of her face and her hands.
A photo of the results is on her refrigerator door in Brooklyn, where she works as a book editor. It makes for a great cocktail story, but there’s something deeper too.
When she looks at it, Ridout feels a sense of pride in her family history and knowing so much about it, or at least part of it. She helped bring to life a woman who has a voice in history, who had agency in her life.
“It’s just strange. It brings her forward as more of a real person, but at the same time, it’s just surreal,” Ridout said.
“It’s almost like you’ve seen yourself.”
Seeing yourself is what Toby Mendez had in mind when he designed the Thurgood Marshall Memorial just outside the State House at Lawyers Mall. Dedicated in 1996, it was only the second major public piece by the Western Maryland sculptor.
“When I started out ... I thought about him on a pedestal by himself, with the limestone colonnade behind him,” Mendez said.
As he researched Marshall’s life, Mendez was absorbed with journalist Carl Rowan’s writings. In particular, he focused on something Rowan wrote about teasing the U.S. Supreme Court justice over dinner, pointing out a Time Magazine story that called him a hero.
“Thurgood got upset. He thought the heroes were the decent people he represented,” Mendez said. “They were the ones who lived in the conditions he was fighting. When he was finished, they had to stay there and live there while he left town.”
So Mendez put those people on benches across the plaza from Marshall. They allow us to see both ourselves and how Marshall saw himself.
On one sits Donald Murray, who Marshall represented after the University of Maryland, School of Law denied him admission because he was Black. On the other sit two anonymous children, the Civil Rights attorney’s symbolic clients in his challenge to legal segregation in Brown vs. the Board of Education.
Together, they provide the perspective that Mendez believes Marshall thought was important. They allow us to sit and think about fighting for our own rights.
“The figures are kind of a bookend, looking toward Thurgood. They’re lifesize, there no greater or lesser than you are,” Mendez said. “There’s room for you to sit on the bench next to them.”
Mendez has done many other pieces, and he’s now working on one about Clara Barton. However, Marshall is one of the few where he used multiple figures. It served a purpose specific to the site and the piece's message.
“I can’t speak for the other artists,” he said. “For me, it was about telling a story. I was also to make the memorial dynamic.”
“It wasn’t just a guy on a pedestal that you would walk or drive by. It’s engaging.”
If you walk a block down Bladen Street from Lawyers Mall, there’s one more statue group to consider.
Approach the Maryland Fire-Rescue Services Memorial from any direction, and the figures of a firefighter and an EMT grab your eye. They’re dead, killed on duty, and ascending seven steps from this world. Figures of a woman and child grieve below as an older man explains their sacrifice.
You must walk deep into the heart of Rodney Carroll’s 2006 work sits to see their story. Unless you step between the figures, you can’t see the loss carved into the woman's face.
Each year, a ceremony comes to the plaza where this monument sits. A giant flag is suspended from the ladders extended from trucks. The bagpipes play, and drums roll on. Speeches are given and applauded.
The next day, the woman is alone again except for the son and an old man who console her.
Annapolis is a pretty town. It’s easy to pass by these memorials and miss the stories. Take the time to look, and you just might find something just beyond the obvious.
Ridout did that long before she modeled for her ancestor. She was a student at Bates Middle School when the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial was dedicated. She walked with her classmates to see it. The children helped her understand.
“Because of the children, it’s … a much more interactive statue.”
Sometimes if you ask around, you might just find someone who can help you find the secret.
“My mother used to work at Historic Annapolis…,” Ridout said. “The docents who show things off, who my mother is friends with, she’ll tell them, ‘that’s my daughter.’ ”