William F. Chaney has helped build statues for the Alex Haley-Kunta Kinte Memorial and a plaque honoring Malcolm X in Annapolis. He has also done the same for Robert E. Lee and another Confederate soldier.

To some, this might be a strange mix. But for the millionaire, who has spent millions memorializing American figures of the past, the symbols are a reminder of this country’s history.

One of the symbols he helped to erect, a 24-foot statue of Lee at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, has caught the ire of Maryland Democratic lawmakers and is the subject of proposed congressional legislation that would have it removed. Chaney built the memorial on private land that is now federally owned, giving Congress jurisdiction.

The battle lines have been drawn, converging racial harmony, revisionist history and politics for a perfect storm of division.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The lawmakers who proposed the Robert E. Lee Monument Removal Act say that the symbol is a divisive reminder of the country’s dark history. Others — like Chaney — argue it is one of history and pride.

Congressman David Trone, lead sponsor of the bill, was joined in support by Steny Hoyer, Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, Kweisi Mfume, Jamie Raskin, and Glenn Ivey.

“Displays in our national parks should be reserved for Americans and patriots who reflect our country’s democratic principles — and be historically accurate,” Ruppersberger said a statement.

Said Mfume: “We should ensure that our national parks accurately reflect the values of unity and equality that we hold dear as a nation. We will not honor those who sought to divide us.”

Trone said the bill is an “effort to ensure Antietam honors our nation’s victory over the Confederacy rather than memorializes historical figures who fought to break up the Union and restrict fundamental human rights.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Trone had said previously that “such an historic site, where men died to advance justice and equality, should not memorialize Robert E. Lee — a man who fought vehemently to uphold slavery. In our pursuit of a more perfect union, we must honor those who stood on the right side of history — not those who sought to hold us back.”

Antietam National Battlefield, a bloody battle where an estimated 22,717 Americans died, were injured or went missing on a single day on American soil, more than any other time in history, played a pivotal role in ending the Confederate Army’s first invasion into the North. It also led President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Chaney, a one-time Anne Arundel resident who has since left the state, erected the hulking statue of the Confederate general on a horse on privately owned land next to Antietam National Battlefield in 2003. It remained on the property after the National Park Service acquired the land in 2005 and incorporated it into Antietam National Battlefield.

Carl Snowden, the former civil rights director for the Office of the Maryland Attorney General, has known Chaney for decades and describes him as a “colleague.”

Chaney is “deeply committed” to the “thought that the South will rise again,” said Snowden.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In a past interview, Chaney has claimed distant family ties to Lee.

But Chaney also provided significant financial support for the Alex Haley-Kunta Kinte Memorial and a plaque honoring Malcolm X in Annapolis, according to Snowden.

“I’m the one that encouraged him to do it,” Snowden said.

In 2020, when a monument of a Confederate soldier was vandalized, it was revealed that Chaney organized the effort to erect the memorial. At that time, Chaney claimed to be a descendant of that Confederate soldier, Benjamin Welch Owens.

Snowden has been closely following the Congressional legislation since Trone’s announcement.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“That is not a foregone conclusion that it [the bill] would pass. But at least it raised some questions,” he said.

Chaney could not be reached for comment and Trone has not received any word from Chaney since announcing the proposed bill last week, according to Galbreath.

Del. Susan McComas, a Harford County Republican, isn’t eligible to vote for the bill as a state representative, but if she could, she said she’d vote against it.

“Antietam was one, if not the bloodiest Civil War Battles,” McComas said. “Brother against brother. This is the history of our country, and it is a grave mistake to hide what happened during the Civil War. When and where is this going to end?”

She added: “Those who don’t know history will continue to repeat it.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

There are close to 2,000 Confederate statues and monuments in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In Maryland, there are seven Confederate memorials. Twelve have been removed or are covered and pending removal since 2015 — a significant year as national debates about Confederate symbols erupted after Dylann Roofmurdered nine people at an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, after posting pictures of himself displaying Confederate symbols.

Virginia has the most Confederate memorials in public spaces, with 200. The state also leads the nation with the most removals, with more than 100 memorials removed since 2015.

The proposed bill in Maryland only addresses the Robert E. Lee monument, which is under the oversight of the federal government as federal property, according to Galbreath.

“We’d have to look into the others as to where they are/whose jurisdiction they’re under, so I can’t speak to those,” Galbreath said in an email.

The fact that the country is still having discussions about Confederate monuments in 2024 is attributed to the “incredible and unfortunate success” of the “organized propaganda campaign” that has attempted to rewrite history ever since the end of the Civil War, said Rivka Maizlish, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Unfortunately, some people still cling to these symbols of white supremacy. We need more accurate history,” Maizlish said.

Confederate symbols have been used as methods of intimidation — especially when looking at where and when they have been erected, according to Maizlish, who explained that many of them popped up on courthouse lawns during pivotal times in Black freedom and the Civil Rights Movement.

“The memorials are part of a long history and attack on accurate history,” Maizlish said. “The Civil War was about slavery and treason.”

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

More From The Banner