It was the photographs of the noose during the Jan. 6 insurrection that momentarily knocked the breath out of Charles Chavis Jr.
The day before, Chavis, director of George Mason University’s John Mitchell Jr. Program for Race, History and Justice, had been feeling hopeful. Georgia voters had just elected two new senators: one Black and one Jewish.
One day later, Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
“The insurrection was extremely traumatic for me,” Chavis told participants of the Baltimore County coalition of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project during a community engagement forum Saturday.
“I saw rioters holding nooses and wearing Auschwitz shirts. I embraced my 6-year-old son and thought about what that meant for his future.”
The Lynching Memorial Project is a volunteer initiative that aims to document the history of the approximately 40 Black people who were killed by mobs in the Free State between 1854 and 1933, seek public acknowledgment of the murders and honor the victims’ lives.
“We thought that we as a nation had moved beyond that by 2021,” Chavis said. “It’s so important to understand how the myth of white supremacy is allowed to survive and thrive.”
The project wants to erect an official marker in every Maryland county in which a lynching occurred. Anne Arundel was the site of five lynchings, there were two in Baltimore County and one apiece in Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, according to Will Schwarz, the nonprofit’s president and founder. No lynchings have been documented in Baltimore City.
Just one historic marker has gone up so far. Anne Arundel’s memorial was dedicated in an Annapolis park in September 2019. A second memorial is tentatively scheduled to be unveiled in Towson on April 17 at the site of the former jail where 15-year-old Howard Cooper was hanged from a sycamore tree on July 13, 1885.
The teenager had been convicted of raping a neighbor, 16-year-old Katie Gray. He was hauled out of the jail by vigilantes hours before his supporters were scheduled to appeal his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Historians have recently discovered a second lynching that occurred in Baltimore County. A Black man named William Ramsey was killed in Rosedale in 1909, Schwarz said, “but beyond that, not much is known about how he died.”
Maryland had fewer of these racially motivated murders on average than other states. Schwarz said that between 1865 and 1960, there were 6,500 lynchings in the U.S.
“It is a mind-blowing number,” he said, adding that two-thirds of those killings occurred in the 35 years before 1900.
Chavis said that Maryland’s relatively low lynching statistics are no cause for celebration.
“Maryland hides behind the idea that it is a progressive state,” he said.
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“But a state doesn’t get off the hook because it had ‘only’ 40 lynchings. There is a straight line between the impunity with which Black people have been lynched historically and the way they can get shot in the back by the police today.”
The Baltimore coalition is attempting to raise awareness of the county’s history of violence against Black citizens by mounting an oral history project, a book discussion group and an anti-racist film night. In the works is a memorial park that will be located near the former Towson jail.
“It will be a place for journaling and reflections upon the contributions that African Americans have made to the county and the nation,” according to Troy Williams, Baltimore County’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.
County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. told participants that his administration is taking steps to correct past and current inequities, “though we still have a long way to go to achieve justice for African American communities.”
He’s proud that the Baltimore County Council recently passed legislation that prohibits officers from using choke holds, compels officers to intervene if they witness excessive use of force and provides other new oversight requirements.
“Without an honest and open dialogue about our county’s past and our country’s past we’ll never be able to truly heal,” Olszewski said.
“Deep inequities continue to exist today. But if we work together, we can continue to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.”