When Mencken and Duffy took aim at the Eastern Shore over lynching

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened April 26 in Montgomery, Ala., preserves for visitors and the national conscience the country’s role in the grotesque history of lynching. And Maryland is not exempt from the stain of it.

The last recorded lynching in the state was that of George Armwood, an African-American, who had been charged with attacking a 71-year-old white farmer’s wife. He was lynched after a mob broke into his jail in Princess Anne in 1933.

The Equal Justice Initiative, the Montgomery nonprofit that created the memorial, documented nearly 5,000 lynchings nationally between 1877 and 1950, including 28 in Maryland.

While the Eastern Shore newspapers largely ignored them, and the Salisbury Times regarded Armwood’s fate as a “demonstration,” the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun, along with the Afro-American, took a more aggressive stance in covering these tragic events over the years.

The Evening Sun’s H. L. Mencken took direct aim at the Eastern Shore in a 1931 column entitled “Eastern Shore Kultur,” in which he described the Shore as “a lush stamping-ground for knavish politicians, prehensile professional patriots, and whooping soul-savers who succumbed to its poor white trash.”

He didn’t stop there, and went on to write that the depraved Shore had become an example of “what civilization can come to in a region wherein there are no competent police, little save a simian self-seeking in public office, no apparent intelligence on the bench, and no courage and no decency in the local press.”

Mencken opined that inhabitants of the Eastern Shore are “stupid enough, God knows, but they are probably less stupid than merely misinformed. There are no agencies of civilized opinion among them. They must depend for their ideas upon clowns in the pulpit, clowns on the stump, and clowns in the editorial chair.”

He further suggested that the Eastern Shoremen had a propensity for keeping lynching ropes next to their Bibles on the mantles of their homes.

The Shore predictably went wild. Mencken was threatened with death if he set foot there, Sun delivery trucks and the newspapers they carried, along with their drivers, were attacked. Other products from Baltimore arriving there were also in jeopardy.

The boycott Mencken had intended to ignite lasted for years.

Mencken had a complicated history on issues of race and religion, but in this instance fought to expose and end this barbaric practice.

Mencken was joined in this endeavor by Pulitzer Prize-winning Sun editorial cartoonist Edmund Duffy, whose dark brush-and-pen drawings such as his 1931 “Maryland, My Maryland,” which depicted the brutal lynching of a black who had confessed to the murder of a white businessman on the Eastern Shore, provoked demonstrations.

Testifying in 1935 before a U.S. Senate committee advocating the Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill, Mencken said that lynchings in Maryland were “perpetrated by the lower orders of society. That decent people were against them, but they were physically unable to stop them. They need help from elsewhere,” and suggested that help needed to come from federal legislation.

No anti-lynching bill was ever passed in the nation’s history. In those days, the Democrats feared losing the Democratic South if they did so.

In 2005, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution apologizing “for its failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation decades ago, marking the first time the body has apologized for the nation’s treatment of African Americans,” reported The Washington Post at the time.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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