The remains of the Francis Scott Key Bridge had not even been pulled from the water when the culture wars over its name began.

The bridge stood as a staple of the Baltimore skyline for 47 years until the Dali, a 984-foot-long cargo ship, rammed into it and sent it crashing into the Patapsco River. Constructed between 1972 and 1977, the continuous steel truss bridge only took 20 seconds to fall, posing a natural question about whether its namesake should fall with it.

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Through much work remains to rebuild the bridge, the conversation about its renaming came fast, in part because of the racial reckoning that came in 2020. During that time, American cities and towns removed 73 Confederate statues and renamed 200 memorials to recognize a more diverse array of important historical figures, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Key, whose name and likeness adorn far more than the bridge near where he wrote the national anthem while confined aboard an American truce ship during the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, has not been spared. The Virginia Theological Seminary, which Key co-founded, has already stripped his name from a building and renamed it Bicentennial Hall.

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Social media is full of ideas

One X user wrote, “The Henrietta Lacks Bridge has a nice ring to it. Plus it’s located about 4 minutes from her house!” Lacks was an African American woman whose cancer cells gave rise to untold medical discoveries across the globe.

Maryland Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, replied and offered up her father’s name among a pool of suggestions.

The Domino Sugar Factory, with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the background, is seen on Thursday, March 14, 2024.
View of the Domino Sugar Factory, with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the background, on Thursday, March 14, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

On Reddit, ideas like “The Spare Key” were deemed a winner. Others like “The Patapsco Gateway Memorial Bridge,” were called simple enough, without wading into the controversies of naming it after a person or replacing what has been lost. There’s more to Baltimore than just ‘The Wire,” but the timeless television show still made its way into the conversation when another user suggested naming it the “Frank Sobotka Memorial Bridge,” after a fictional character who appears in a scene with the bridge in the background.

News organizations responded as well, landing where one might expect.

“Woke America eyes rebooting Francis Scott Key’s name from rebuilt Baltimore bridge,” blared a headline in the conservative Washington Times newspaper.

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“When a new bridge spans the Patapsco, name it something other than the Key Bridge,” countered The Root, a Black culture online magazine. “Lots of Americans — hell, lots of Marylanders — are more worthy of the honor.”

Who Was Key?

Francis Scott Key is memorialized for an anthem — we sing only part of it — that celebrates a victory in a war that was more of a draw. He abhorred the slave trade, yet kept eight slaves to wait on him and married into a family that enslaved many more.

A gifted lawyer, Key helped Black Marylanders sue for their freedom prior to emancipation, but so abhorred the thought of free Black citizens that he tried at every turn to ship them to Liberia, where many died within months. In later years, Key regretted that he had helped Black Marylanders sue for their freedom, saying it had “produced for them nothing but evil,” and claimed he could not “remember more than two instances, out of this large number, in which it did not appear that the freedom I so earnestly sought for them was their ruin.” He called Black Americans “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”

Portrait of Francis Scott Key. (Courtesty of Theodor Horydczak Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Born near Frederick in 1779, Key grew up on a plantation, and became even more wealthy when he married Mary Tayloe Lloyd, whose extended family once owned Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist and human rights advocate. Key was the best friend, law partner and eventually the brother-in-law of Roger Taney, the Supreme Court chief justice who declared in the infamous Dred Scott decision that Black people had no rights that the white man was “bound to respect.”

Key lobbied President Andrew Jackson hard on Taney’s behalf; he ended up with a high-profile government position, too, as the district attorney for Washington, D.C. There, he had access to 10 constables who spent their time catching freedom seekers, sometimes grabbing free Black residents off the streets and selling them into bondage.

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Key famously prosecuted Reuben Crandall, a botanist who used anti-slavery pamphlets to wrap his plants, for possessing and distributing seditious literature. Though Key would lose the case, Crandall would die at age 31 from tuberculosis he contracted in jail. Similarly, he prosecuted Arthur Bowen, a young enslaved man, for wielding an axe while drunk near his mother and the woman who owned them, Anna Thornton. As Bowen waited for nine months, manacled in the jail, white rioters called for his death. Key responded by restricting Black residents’ freedom. Eventually, Anna Thornton convinced Jackson to pardon her Arthur in exchange for her selling him down south. His mother never saw him again.

Despite that legacy, many landmarks bear Key’s name.

In Washington, D.C., there is a 101-year-old concrete arch bridge over the Potomac to Virginia, as well as a small waterfront park in nearby Georgetown. In South Baltimore, Key’s name appears on an elementary-middle school and a road connecting Federal Hill with the Fort McHenry exit off Interstate 95.

Ben Womer, the founder and former president of what is now the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society and Museum, pushed for naming the bridge in Key’s honor.

“There’s nothing around here — not a building, not a road — that’s been named after Francis Scott Key and we here on Patapsco Neck think this new bridge ought to be named after him,” Womer said, according to a 1975 Baltimore Sun news article.

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Womer pressured members of Congress at the time, “bothering them all the time until they finally agreed to call it the Key Bridge, instead of naming it for the governor back then,” according to Jean Walker, the society’s current president.

She added, “And we certainly hope that they keep that name when the bridge is rebuilt.”

A tugboat and barge move past the twisted remains of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which was destroyed when a cargo ship collided with it on March 26, 2024. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Key Renaming

The University of Maryland is mulling renaming the history building bearing Key’s name, thanks to a student-led push. There is precedent: In 2015, the board of regents approved renaming the university’s former Byrd Stadium to Maryland Stadium. The original name honored former university president Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, a segregationist who kept Black students from enrolling at this university until a court order forced him to do so.

University of Maryland history professor Richard Bell is advising the student-led group, and said he plans to vote to recommend a name change. As for other locations bearing Key’s name, Bell said: “Key’s support for deporting free Black people out of the United States during his career make him a very problematic figure to be honored in any permanent public way in the 21st century in the state of Maryland.”

Whether, and when, to rename the bridge remains the purview of the Maryland Transportation Commission. In some cases, the commission also needs the approval of the three-member Board of Public Works. A spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority did not specify whether the Key Bridge would be such a case.

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“The impacts of this devastating event will undoubtedly have a profound effect on our community and the nation for the foreseeable future. The Maryland Transportation Commission stands ready to provide support as we unite as a State to chart a path towards healing and recovery,” Commission Chair Justin Towles wrote in a statement.

But David Belew, a vice president of the Maryland Center for History and Culture, said that 2024 is a different time than 1976, when the bridge was named.

“I think the way that we do history, and the way that we talk about history, has evolved significantly,” Belew said. “And I do think this is an opportunity to talk about the history of Baltimore and in a new and engaging way.”

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