As Wes Moore began his first day as Maryland governor, he acknowledged the state’s shameful history with slavery

Published on: January 18, 2023 11:29 AM EST|Updated on: January 18, 2023 7:14 PM EST

Wes Moore with son James Moore at the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial to lay a wreath and say a prayer before the governor-elect is sworn in as the first African American governor of the state of Maryland.
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On the day that he would become Maryland’s 63rd governor — the first Black man to hold that position — Wes Moore began by acknowledging the past.

He joined a small group of activists and politicians at Annapolis City Dock, where centuries ago enslaved people were sold and traded in the Colonial city.

There, steps from the water, a set of statues depicts children looking up at author Alex Haley, whose research led to the discovery that he was related to an enslaved young man from The Gambia named Kunta Kinte, who arrived in Annapolis aboard a slave ship in 1767. The history was immortalized in the book and miniseries “Roots.”

Moore did not speak at the event, but listened intently as ministers and speakers traced the state’s history with slavery and outlined the promise of the new governor taking office.

But he wrote on Twitter: “We begin inauguration day by gathering here at the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley memorial in Annapolis to lay a wreath. It is here where two centuries ago, enslaved people arrived in this country against their will.”

While Maryland was, on paper, a Union state during the Civil War, many forget that the Free State was not so free. The former state song — removed from the laws of Maryland only in 2021, after multiple attempts — called President Abraham Lincoln a “despot” and called on people to take up arms against “Northern scum.”

Enslaved people were forced to labor on tobacco plantations, on farm fields and in shipyards across Maryland, since the first colonists arrived in 1634 until slavery was outlawed in 1864. It’s likely that enslaved people helped construct the Maryland State House on a hill in Annapolis — the very building where Moore would later take the oath of office and govern the state.

Moore, a 44-year-old Democrat, is only the third Black man elected to the position of governor in U.S. history, following L. Douglas Wilder taking office in Virginia in 1990 and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts in 2007. He later became the only Black person currently serving as governor in the nation.

On the campaign trail and in the run-up to the inauguration, Moore repeatedly said he didn’t run for governor to make history, but rather to make a difference. But the history was hard to ignore: Every single one of Maryland’s 62 prior governors, including the last 30 elected by statewide popular vote, have all been white men.

“We stand here today in triumph,” said keynote speaker Sherrilyn Ifill, the former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Triumph, not because we have ended the scourge of white supremacy in our country or state, and not because the effects of chattel slavery, Jim Crow and the dehumanization of Black people are not still with us. In fact, we pledge and know our new governor has pledged to address those lingering inequities aggressively.

“No, we stand here in triumph because the journey from Kunta Kinte to Frederick Douglass was just the beginning of a long line of extraordinary Marylanders who improbably worked to overcome the shackles placed upon them to become great leaders, not only of this state, but of this country and even the world.”

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A bipartisan group of Black political dignitaries were present and recognized during the event as trailblazers: U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, Attorney General Anthony Brown, former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, among them. Those who have died were also acknowledged, from former U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a legendary figure in Maryland politics, to Verda Welcome of Baltimore, the first Black woman to serve in the state Senate.

Ifill said it was powerful that Moore chose to start his first day as governor not with celebration, but with recognition of those who came before, “by asking that we pause to gather together at this dock and consider the meaning of this day in historical context.”

Moore and his running mate Aruna Miller watched intently through the program, with their spouses, Dawn Moore and David Miller, standing next to them. At one point, the Moores’ son, James, stepped forward to stand by his father, who draped his arm around his shoulder. Dawn Moore reached back to clutch the hand of their daughter Mia.

In addition to opening and closing prayers from ministers, poet Lady Brion offered a rousing poem — part sung and part spoken — and French musician Frédéric Yonnet played “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on his harmonica — a soulful version that had Moore shaking his head in appreciation.

In her benediction, Karen Bethea of Baltimore County’s Set the Captives Free Outreach Center invited the crowd to raise their hands to join in a blessing over Moore and Miller.

“We thank you for the ancestors whose shoulders we stand upon,” she said. “Father, I know that as a cloud of great witnesses, they are celebrating today.”

After placing a red, white, and blue wreath in front of the statue of Haley, the Moores and Millers walked in prayerful silence up Main Street and back toward the State House complex. They briefly paused as the children shed a few tears.

A few steps later, they were greeted by musician Tony Covay, who played a guitar and sang for the procession: “It’s been a long time coming.”