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Towson residents working to memorialize 1885 lynching of 15-year-old Howard Cooper

Will Schwarz, president of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, in his home in Towson.
Will Schwarz, president of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, in his home in Towson. (Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Howard Cooper was just 15 years old when he was convicted of raping Katie Gray in the area once known as Rockland in Baltimore County. Cooper, who was black, was convicted by an all-white jury that deliberated within minutes and without leaving the jury box.

Cooper was sentenced to death by hanging. But before his attorneys could appeal the conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that Cooper’s 14th Amendment rights had been violated because blacks were effectively barred from serving on juries in Maryland, he was lynched. A mob of about 75 white men hanged him right outside the Towson jail, according to archived copies of The Baltimore Sun from July 13, 1885.

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During his trial, Cooper said he did assault Gray, who was 16 years old according to the Maryland State Archives. However, neither Cooper nor Gray said Gray was raped, only a doctor who examined Gray testified to that, said Jennifer Liles, a public historian. According to archived copies of The Sun, Cooper thought he may have been 17 years old; Liles used census records to determine he could not have been older than 15.

“Would that action [the lynching] had happened if he was white and 15? Do we become so animalistic that we forget that he is a child?” Liles said.

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Cooper’s lynching was one of at least 44 that occurred in Maryland, as documented by The Sun. Liles is part of a group of Towson residents that is working to publicize and memorialize Cooper’s lynching, and others around the state.

Troy Williams, Baltimore County’s first chief diversity officer, said he’s glad there’s work being done to memorialize the lynching and to recognize the region’s past.

“Let’s have these difficult conversations about the difficult past that we all share,” Williams said.

Troy Williams, the county's chief diversity officer shown at a past news conference, said of efforts to memorialize lynchings, “Let’s have these difficult conversations about the difficult past that we all share.”
Troy Williams, the county's chief diversity officer shown at a past news conference, said of efforts to memorialize lynchings, “Let’s have these difficult conversations about the difficult past that we all share.” (Courtesy Photo/Baltimore County / HANDOUT)

Maryland Lynching Memorial Project

Thousands of racial terror lynchings took place in the United States, with at least 40 occurring in Maryland. The Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, formally incorporated two years ago, is working to educate Marylanders on the state’s history, and to recognize the victims of those lynchings.

Will Schwarz, a Towson-based filmmaker, was inspired to form and head up the project after reading the book “Just Mercy” and hearing its author, Bryan Stevenson, speak at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Schwarz said he was “blown away” upon learning some of the history of lynching in the United States.

“Not just the scale of it, but the depravity,” Schwarz said.

After working with a teacher in Baltimore County to help instruct a class about lynching in U.S. history, Schwarz decided the work was “too important to give up on,” and so he formed the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project.

Schwarz and others in the group work to document the history of lynching in Maryland, advance the cause of reconciliation in the state and advocate for public acknowledgment of lynchings.

In Towson, Schwarz said a marker memorializing Howard Cooper could be coming soon. He received informal approval from the Equal Justice Initiative that said the nonprofit would help establish a memorial marker for Cooper outside the historic Towson jail. The Equal Justice Initiative is a nonprofit that provides legal assistance, advocates for criminal justice reform and documents the history of lynching in America.

Originally, the plan was for the marker to be dedicated in May, Schwarz said, but public health concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus have delayed the schedule; a new date has not been set, he said.

Carol Brooks, an analyst with Baltimore County government who’s helping coordinate the work between the Equal Justice Initiative and the county, said she has been “overwhelmed” with the level of community support for memorializing Cooper’s lynching.

“It’s humbling in a way,” she said.

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The project also has made it to at least one local school. Michelle St. Pierre, a social studies teacher at Loch Raven Technical Academy, worked with the memorial project to teach a class of eighth-graders studying juvenile justice about the Howard Cooper case, and to encourage them to react through individual projects, like letter writing or presentations.

“I think sometimes we get so far removed from history that we almost can’t imagine it being in our backyard,” she said. “Our kids were really shocked.”

Earlier this school year, before winter break, St. Pierre’s students worked on projects about the Cooper case. Some created presentations to share with other students at the school; some were even working on a letter to send to the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission to inquire about getting the 1885 conviction overturned.

“I don’t want to expose them to some of these tragedies, but if we don’t expose [students] to this hard history, we don’t learn,” St. Pierre said. “But to watch them turn it around so quickly, like ‘we need to do something,’ it gives you great pride, and it gives you great hope for the future.”

Jamea, an eighth-grader at Loch Raven Technical Academy, speaks during a short documentary about the Howard Cooper case that was produced by Baltimore County Public Schools.
Jamea, an eighth-grader at Loch Raven Technical Academy, speaks during a short documentary about the Howard Cooper case that was produced by Baltimore County Public Schools. (Courtesy photo/BCPS / HANDOUT)

In a video feature produced by the school system, many students from St. Pierre’s class talked about why they found learning about Howard Cooper meaningful, and connected it to contemporary experiences. One student in the video, identified only as Sasha, said learning about the past, and especially racial lynchings, was important because it could be connected to police brutality in the modern era.

Another student, Jamea, called it “extremely unfair” that a mob of people would take justice into its own hands, rather than allow a case to work its way through the criminal justice system.

“I think it’s helpful for people to see how inhumane our culture has been," said Darel, a third student featured in the video.

Seeking justice

The way Liles, the public historian, sees it, Howard Cooper and Katie Gray were not the only victims back in 1885.

The morning after Howard Cooper’s lynching — and after a conductor slowed a train so passengers could gawk at the swaying body — his mother recovered his body. For a long time, reports simply referred to “Howard’s mother,” and Liles wanted to uncover her name and learn her story.

Earlier in her life, Henrietta Cooper, Howard’s mother, had been assaulted by a white man named William Bond who was convicted and served 10 years in prison for assault to commit rape.

“While this is Howard’s story, for me this has always been Henrietta’s story because I am a mom,” she said. “I instantly connected to Henrietta. I can’t connect to Howard. He’s 15, he’s a guy. But I can connect with a mom who has a child.”

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Liles said speaking Henrietta’s name, and acknowledging her pain and suffering, are ways to give “dignity” to her story. Liles said a historic record of Henrietta exists into the early 1900s, but then “she’s just gone.”

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“I want to find Henrietta," Liles said. "We don’t know where she’s buried.”

Schwarz, St. Pierre and Liles are all white, and all operate with the understanding that they’re helping tell stories that they will never fully understand or internalize.

Liles says she is telling “a history that is not my own.” But, she added, “I think it’s important for white people to tell this history. And it has been purposefully avoided ... because the perpetrators were white.”

St. Pierre said that since she doesn’t live the same experience as her minority group students, she tries “to have kids talk about their experiences and embolden others” to share their own experiences growing up as a member of a minority group in America.

Schwarz said he’s been asked by some people if he plans to step down from leading the memorial project because of the “optics” of being a white man running an organization that focuses on the history of lynching in Maryland.

But he’s become less uncomfortable with that dichotomy over time, Schwarz said. The color of one’s skin does not prevent one from seeking justice, he said.

“It’s important for people to understand this [history],” he said. “This is a way I can contribute.”

Towson, MD -- 08/28/2018 -- The building once used as the Towson jail which held Howard Cooper. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun Staff)
Towson, MD -- 08/28/2018 -- The building once used as the Towson jail which held Howard Cooper. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

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