Francis Scott Key Monument on Eutaw Place, pre-vandalism.

Is every statue of a racist a racist statue?

In the wake of a nationwide push to remove public monuments to the Confederacy, which prompted Baltimore to take down three Confederate statues and a monument to former U.S. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney under cover of night, an elaborate monument to “The Star-Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key was vandalized in Bolton Hill.

The defacement consisted of splashes of red paint and spray-painted messages, such as “Slave Owner” and “Racist Anthem,” a reference to the poem’s unsung third stanza which boasts that “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave,” referring to the black former slaves among the British ranks in the War of 1812.

Despite Key’s history as a slave owner and aggressive anti-abolitionist, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and, so far, much of the public are disinclined to have the statue taken down.

The most compelling argument for removing statues of Confederate icons from public space points to their purpose at the time they were erected. In a recent study, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that a large number of Confederate statues were installed in the early 20th century as symbols of Jim Crow. Another wave went up as a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. If we accept that these statues have never been mere memorials to Southern history but were intended from the start as intimidating shrines to white supremacy and segregation, the decision to remove them becomes much simpler.

The Key statue is somewhat different. While it is impossible to deny that Key expended a good deal of energy in his life upholding white supremacy, the monument in Bolton Hill was intended as a commemoration of the Battle of Baltimore and its enduring importance as the inspiration for the national anthem. And, again so far, it seems that most residents take it at face value.

According to reporting in the Baltimore Sun, Pugh has already tasked art experts with determining the cost of restoring the statue.