Civil rights author cheers public launch of new commission on Maryland’s lynching history

It has been 12 years since the celebrated civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill published her seminal book on the history of lynching in Maryland, a study in which she called for creating a South African-style “truth and reconciliation” commission to address the legacy of the terrible practice in her home state.

On Thursday night, Ifill took to a podium at the University of Baltimore School of Law night to address the members of just such a commission ― and nearly 200 interested members of the public ― at what she called a historic moment in the nation’s struggle to process its lynching past.


The event was the public launch of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a task force formed by the passage of a bill in the Maryland General Assembly in April and the first of its kind in the United States.

It can take a while “for the stars to align,” Ifill said, when it comes to making historic change, but she called it “wonderful to see the needle being moved forward” as the state begins to reckon with events she says have reverberations to this day.

More than 4,000 African Americans were killed in racial terror lynchings, most by white mobs, in the United States between 1850 and 1950.

At least 40 — all African American males — are known to have been killed by lynching in Maryland over approximately the same span. The murders took place in 18 of the state’s 24 counties.

The numbers are modest compared to the death toll in the most violent of states, such as Mississippi, with 654, or Georgia, with 589, according to the Equal Justice Institute, an Alabama-based research center in Montgomery, Alabama, that focuses on lynching and other forms of racial violence.

But it was more than enough to capture the attention of Ifill, whose 2007 book "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century,” centered on the two most recent lynchings in Maryland, the torture killings by white mobs of African American laborers Matthew Williams in Salisbury in 1931 and George Armwood in Princess Anne in 1933.

Researchers at the Maryland State Archives built a database of known cases of lynching in the state over a course of years after that, but public attention to the subject intensified more recently with the creation of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, a nonprofit whose president, Towson filmmaker Will Schwarz, was inspired by the work of Bryan Stevenson, the attorney and activist who founded the Equal Justice Institute.

Schwarz and Nicholas Creary, then a history professor at Bowie State University, worked with Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, a Democrat who represents portions of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, to author House Bill 307, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in April.

The commission’s goals, according to the bill, are to carry out research on the lynchings known to have occurred in the state, to hold public meetings in the communities where the killings took place, and to include their findings and recommendations in a report to the governor and members of the General Assembly by the end of 2021. A final report is to be submitted by the following December.

The bill asserts that lynchings deprived victims of life as well as the right to due process; that no one in Maryland was ever “tried, convicted or otherwise brought to justice” in the cases; that “various state, county and local governments colluded” in the racial terror killings and acted to flout the law and protect perpetrators; and that no victim’s family ever received an apology or compensation.

“Restorative justice requires a full knowledge, understanding and acceptance of truth before there can be any meaningful reconciliation,” it states.

The commission includes, among other members, one historian from each of the state’s historically black colleges and universities, Coppin State University, Morgan State University, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Bowie State University; a state archivist; a member of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights; a representative of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore; and a member of the Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture.

Ifill and a second guest speaker, Kelebogile Zvobgo, a PhD. candidate in the social sciences at the University of Southern California who studies truth and reconciliation commissions, offered encouragement to the commission members as well as a few words of caution and concern.

Zvobgo warned there would likely be pushback, stressing that it would be important to keep the pressure on politicians and other leaders in the state as more information about lynchings is revealed and made public.


Ifill applauded members for their plan to hold public hearings in the communities in which lynchings occurred, as she said the crimes continue to loom large in the public consciousness in those places.

The commission, which held its second monthly meeting in the law school building earlier in the day, is still seeking the four public members mandated by the legislation. Members have received 15 applications and expect to narrow the list down by next week.