A bright moon hovered above Westminster, Md., that evening in June 1885, its “still rays lighting up every nook and corner,” The Baltimore Sun reported at the time, when the sounds of “a cavalcade of horses” broke the silence.
Dozens of riders, their faces masked, rode toward the downtown jail.
They overpowered the sheriff on duty and tied him up. They found a key in the jailhouse, yanked open the cell of 21-year-old Townsend Cook, and threw a rope around his neck.
And the mob of about 50 took Cook, a black day laborer accused of assaulting a white woman, to a nearby farm, hanged him from an oak tree, and fired shots into his body as it dangled.
“[The] ghastly corpse, with two bullet wounds in the back of the head, swung with pendulum-like motion in the sweet, morning breeze,” The Sun reported. “Everyone, save the officers of the law, seemed pleased.”
Cruel, harrowing and illegal as it was, the lynching of Townsend Cook was far from unique in Maryland. Mobs in the Old Line State committed dozens of the terror killings in the decades following the Civil War.
While the gruesome practice of lynching is most closely associated with the Southern states of the former Confederacy, hundreds were committed elsewhere in the country — including at least 44 in Maryland.
More than a third of those were perpetrated within what is now a 45-minute drive of Baltimore. Lynchings have been recorded in 18 of the state’s 24 counties.
The most recent such attack — the hanging and mutilation of 22-year-old farm laborer George Armwood in Princess Anne in 1933 — was carried out in front of about 2,000 people, and within the lifespans of tens of thousands of living Marylanders.
“People tend to think something as terrible as lynching must have happened long ago and far away,” says Nicholas Creary, a history professor at Bowie State University who studies the subject. “But it took place right here, in communities we know and drive past every day.
“The fact that we forget about it doesn’t change the fact that it happened.”
Creary is one of a growing group of scholars, activists and private citizens trying to help America recover and remember this chapter of its history in the hope of finally transcending it. A movement is underway to acknowledge and reconcile the country’s lynching past, and it’s gaining momentum in Maryland.
A museum focusing on lynching and its victims opened in Montgomery, Ala., in April and has drawn thousands of visitors. Books and studies on the phenomenon are emerging. And in Maryland, activists are building databases, planning films and working to organize a conference on the state’s lynching legacy.
Lynching is American history, and for us to recover from that violence and terror, we all have to know that history and we all have to talk about it.
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the nonprofit behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice
The symposium, the first of its kind here, is set to draw scholars, activists and descendants of victims to Baltimore next month.
Backers say the goal is not to assign blame, inflict guilt or stir up buried animosities. It’s to create opportunities for healing wounds that still afflict American society.
“To understand the problems we’re facing with the legal system — the police shootings of African-Americans we keep seeing, or the disproportionate incarceration rates among black Americans — we need to go back a hundred years, to see how those attitudes developed and in what ways they’re still at work,” Creary says.
Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer, scholar and author who founded the nonprofit behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, says it will indeed be difficult to address the forms of racial injustice that plague the culture without first hauling this chapter of our past into the light.
“Lynching is American history, and for us to recover from that violence and terror, we all have to know that history, and we all have to talk about it,” says Stevenson, who founded and leads the Equal Justice Initiative. “I believe that will compel us to think differently about what we need to do to confront the past, to address the past and to make a better future.”
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A ‘message crime’
A month after Cook was lynched, another masked mob used a flagpole to batter down the rear door of the Towson jail.
The 75 men hauled 17-year-old day laborer Howard Cooper from his second-floor cell, marched him onto the lawn and hanged him from a sycamore tree.
A “well known gentleman of the town” — The Sun did not name him — cut the rope into pieces and handed them out as souvenirs.
Four days before Christmas in 1906, a mob seized the semi-disabled farmhand Henry Davis from his jail cell on Calvert Street in Annapolis, paraded him along Clay Street and down Northwest Avenue, shot him and hanged him from a tree along College Creek.
A photographer took pictures of his body, printed them up as postcards and hawked them in town at two for a quarter.
And on the night of Dec. 6, 1931, another group of whites seized Matthew Williams, a lumber yard worker, from his hospital room in Salisbury and threw him out a window. A thousand people dragged him to the county courthouse, hanged him and set his body on fire.
An onlooker cut off his toes and gave them to friends.
The lynchings of Cook, Cooper and Williams, which spanned nearly half a century, were in many ways typical of the racial killings that terrorized the black community nationwide from the Civil War era through the mid-20th century.
They involved a white crowd overpowering a young African-American and treating him more savagely than even killing him would have required.
The underlying complaints against the victim were often-flimsy allegations, ranging from the “crime” of speaking out of turn to a white person to frequently spurious claims of theft, sexual assault or murder.
And there was frequently a carnival atmosphere, the certainty the victim would never enjoy his right to due process, and the expectation that the justice system would hold no perpetrators to account.
Over time, in Maryland and elsewhere, the understanding took shape that lynchings were more than brutal acts of vigilante justice meted out on a case-by-case basis. They were a form of domestic terrorism aimed at a newly liberated black public.
A lynching is “a powerful and very public message of white supremacy.”
Civil rights attorney Sherrilyn A. Ifill
Civil rights attorney Sherrilyn A. Ifill, the author of the 2007 book “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century,” was one of the first to explore Maryland’s lynching history.
One misconception around lynchings, she says, is that they were mostly the work of marginalized or disaffected individuals. In fact, widely respected citizens — teachers, ministers, housewives, police officers — regularly took part.
Their participation promoted the impression that the crime bore the backing of the entire white community, including its most powerful members.
“A lynching is more than a murder; it’s a message crime,” Ifill says. “It’s a message to the African-American community about the boundaries of citizenship: ‘This is what you can do and this is what you can’t do. These will be the consequences if you cross these lines. These are the narrow confines of the ways in which you will be permitted to exercise citizenship.’
“It’s a powerful and very public message of white supremacy.”
It was shared most often and most forcefully in the Deep South.
The Equal Justice Initiative, the research and legal foundation behind the Montgomery museum, has documented more than 4,400 lynchings of black Americans by whites in 12 former states of the Confederacy from 1877 to 1950. That was about three-fourths of all lynchings nationwide during those years.
More than 300 of the attacks were committed in border and Midwestern states, including Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois and West Virginia. Maryland’s total — the initiative has verified 29 — places it in the middle of that second-bloodiest tier.
Historians at the Maryland State Archives have documented 38 lynchings in the state between 1865 and 1935.
The disparity in the numbers reflects the many factors that complicate any study of lynching — variations in how the term is defined, differences in the years studied, differences in the standards of proof employed.
The Equal Justice Initiative, for example, focuses on blacks known to have been killed by whites, while the archives list includes the lynching of an African-American by a black mob, the lynching of two white men, four lynchings corroborated by just one source, and a lynching that was reported in two newspapers that later retracted their accounts.
Creary has recently added the lynchings of two more white men to his list.
Together the researchers identify 44 lynchings in the state, all but five of them of black men at the hands of whites.
The figures are modest compared to those of states such as Mississippi, which the Equal Justice Initiative found to be America's cruelest state, with 654 lynchings, or Georgia, second with 589.
But that means little to descendants of Cook, Cooper, Davis, Williams and Armwood, and Maryland’s African-American communities across the generations. Nor does anyone believe that historians have been able to document every lynching.
Members of the reconciliation movement say acknowledgement of the victims' lives and sufferings is long overdue.
Christopher Haley is research director of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland, the state archives program that gathers information on lynching. He's also a descendant of Kunta Kinte, the Gambian-born man who was brought to Annapolis as a slave in 1767 and memorialized in “Roots,” the 1976 bestseller by Haley’s uncle Alex.
To Haley, the research is a form of restoration.
“These victims were human beings who deserved the same dignity anyone should get, whether it’s the president of the United States or the person who comes to change the tire on your car,” he says. “Learning about them and naming them helps speak to their significance as persons who lived in the U.S.A.”
Problems of definition
As close as it is to us in time and place, lynching remains a hard subject to encompass.
Problems of definition abound. For example, about a fourth of all lynching victims in the United States — more than 1,300, according to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama — were not African-American.
Most of these victims were ethnic Asians, Latinos or Italians who were killed in Southern states or the Western Territories prior to the Civil War.
Meanwhile, no one knows how commonplace lynchings were during the slavery era.
Before the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, researchers say, the killing of enslaved people would have drawn little attention. Slaveholders would have been destroying their own “property.”
And there’s the more contemporary belief that lynching never fully disappeared; it simply morphed into less obvious forms of state-backed violence against minorities.
When it comes to lynching as most define it — the extrajudicial killing of blacks by white mobs in post-Civil War America — we can track certain trends. More occurred from 1880 to 1910 than in any other three decades, for example, in Maryland and nationwide.
The figures fell gradually over the next 30 to 40 years under pressure from the black and international press, progressive groups including the NAACP, and Quaker-led resistance coalitions, among other forces.
Many facts remain elusive.
Among the documents that survive are death certificates and coroner’s reports on the victims. But they're rife with the sort of obfuscation that surrounded most lynchings: participants who declined to name each other, witnesses who refused to talk, police and newspapers who accepted cover stories at face value, and judges and others who made token efforts, at best, to find the perpetrators.
Time and time again, the documents reached the same conclusion in nearly identical words: The victim died at the hands of persons unknown.
“Members of these communities were there, as observers or participants, taking part in these kinds of public festivals. And when they didn't tell what they knew, or follow up afterward, that was complicity," Ifill says. “It’s like what we see today in police departments, where everyone covers up for a few bad apples.”
That leaves newspapers of the era as the go-to source — but the view they offer is also distorted. Haley and others say the bulk of what they know comes from press accounts, but they must read those accounts with a skeptical eye.
“It was just like today,” Haley says. “Media outlets catered to their own audiences, and their accounts were slanted to appease or attract that audience.”
In covering a lynching, the smaller local papers — the Worcester Democrat, the Salisbury Advertiser — often assumed the guilt of the accused rather than presenting both sides. They used incendiary racist language (“the black fiend,” “the ravisher”) and implied or said outright that the victim deserved his fate.
In 1885, the Baltimore County Union, a Towson weekly, quoted a member of the mob that killed Howard Cooper.
Cooper stood accused of sexually assaulting Katie Gray, the 16-year-old daughter of a prominent white family in Towson. An all-white jury took less than a minute to convict him; his lawyers were working on an appeal when he was taken from his cell.
The lyncher, who was allowed to speak anonymously, described the killing as a moral act.
“The men were mostly substantial farmers, and all of them good citizens,” the man said. “There was not a rough character among us. Every man was actuated by the thought that in avenging Miss Gray he was protecting his own wife, sweetheart or children.
“We were very particular not to begin work before midnight, so as to avoid doing the lynching on a Sunday.”
The reporter presented no countervailing viewpoint.
Metro papers such as The Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Washington Evening Star, with their white staffs and readerships, typically decried lynching as a practice, but in many ways did little better in their coverage.
They, too, embraced what Creary calls “the brute Negro narrative.” They quoted lynchers without pressing for names, declined to interview or mention members of the black community, misspelled or omitted the victims’ names, and generally registered little of the outrage the crimes warranted.
The Evening Capital blamed the lynching of Henry Davis on a justice system that acted too slowly — and voiced relief that his accuser would not have to face him in court. The Sun seemed as interested in the feelings and reputation of a powerful white politician as the brutality of the murder.
“Much regret has been expressed that the lynching took place within a quarter of a mile of the home of Governor [Edwin] Warfield, who a few months ago took such great precaution to have a negro [executed by hanging] on Smith’s Island, in Chesapeake bay, to avoid a possible lynching,” the account read.
It wasn't until the emergence of black-owned newspapers around the turn of the century — the Baltimore Afro-American in 1892, the Pittsburgh Courier in 1907 — that readers were treated to fully rounded accounts that included the reactions of those affected most directly.
In the aftermath of the Matthew Williams lynching, the Afro-American placed a photo of Williams’ distraught sister on the front page. An article quoted one of his co-workers describing Williams as a reliable, well-liked man who never caused a quarrel at the Elliott Box and Crate Factory.
“He had good common sense and [often] advised the young fellows who worked with him to save their money,” Delaware Street told reporter Holland Walters.
The paper’s editors dubbed the issue the “Maryland Shame Edition” and used the dateline “SALISBURY (Lynch-town), Md.” for every story.
Ifill says she relied far more heavily on the black press than on any other source. Creary is one of many who say The Sun and other white-owned outlets only exacerbated the conditions that made lynching possible.
Over time, though, a picture of lynching in Maryland emerged with some clarity. It reflected a state still struggling to reconcile its reputation for racial progressiveness with its continuing embrace of racist traditions.
A haunting history
If anyone can be called the catalyst of the reconciliation movement, it’s Stevenson. His work has driven the conversation about lynching across the country since 2010, culminating in the debut of the $20 million museum in Montgomery, and its effects are taking root in communities across the United States, including in Maryland.
The Harvard-trained attorney grew up in the 1960s in southern Delaware, a modest drive from where Williams and Armwood were lynched three decades earlier.
In his youth, the schools and neighborhoods remained segregated, in fact if not by law. Stevenson, who is African-American, remembers seeing Confederate flags in the former Union state, but little discussion around what they represented.
Stevenson, 59, founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1994 as a foundation to combat what he has long seen as entrenched bias against minorities and the poor in the criminal justice system. Further study convinced him that lynching was a direct progenitor to an American justice system in which blacks are still incarcerated more frequently for minor crimes and sentenced to death more frequently for major ones than any other group.
When Stevenson and his small staff set forth in 2010 to research lynching, they quickly saw how the practice had been used to intimidate the black public. The observation became central to their landmark 2015 study, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” and the museum itself.
But the team was surprised to see how few signs of lynching were visible on a landscape that had been so deeply affected by the practice.
“Many of the communities where lynchings took place have gone to great lengths to erect markers and monuments that memorialize the Civil War, the Confederacy, and historical events in which local power was violently reclaimed by white Southerners,” Stevenson says. “Yet in all of our subject states, we observed that there is an astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching.”
That certainly proved true in Maryland, where the first memorial for a lynching victim was a plaque the City of Annapolis dedicated to the memory of Henry Davis — and to nine other men lynched between 1891 and 1906.
The city dedicated the plaque in 2001 in Brewer Hill Cemetery, where Davis lies in an unmarked grave in a section once reserved for smallpox victims, as part of a ceremony of apology.
The Old Carroll Jail, the building from which the mob hauled Cook in 1885, still stands in downtown Westminster, where it houses part of the county sheriff’s office. The precise location of the farm where he died is unknown.
And Baltimore County historian John McGrain says hundreds of cars roar over the Towson hanging site daily. By his reckoning, the lawn in question lies under busy Bosley Avenue. There’s no sign of Cooper, or his horrific death there.
People tend to think something as terrible as lynching must have happened long ago and far away. But it took place right here.
Nicholas Creary, history professor at Bowie State University
Ifill points out that the county courthouses in Salisbury and Princess Anne look much as they did when large crowds lynched Williams and Armwood. Yet few of the citizens who use those buildings know what their forebears did there, and within living memory.
The silence around these atrocities, she says, only drives the lingering sense of shame underground, where it lurks in the collective unconscious like a ghost waiting to be released from this world to the next.
“The mere fact that lynching is not visible in the landscape doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, and it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have power,” Ifill says. “And the fact that it’s not talked about — the silence was always a big part of lynching.
“For me, the point of my book is that I feel very strongly that the residue of these events lives in the local communities where they happened.”
Stevenson says he has made a close study of Maryland’s lynching history. He believes the state’s relatively modest numbers are a poor indication of the significance of the practice here.
Unlike the Southern states, he says, Maryland is close enough to the nation’s capital that one would expect its inhabitants to be on better behavior. In his view, the fact that it happened here at all suggests a level of fanaticism that even Alabama, Louisiana or Texas might not have been able to claim.
Stevenson points out that many Southern blacks probably migrated to Maryland — a state that boasted an unusually large population of free blacks prior to the Civil War — in hopes of finding refuge. He says the expectation likely gave the lynchings that did happen an especially cruel edge.
One theory he floats: Because Lincoln exempted Maryland from the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, as a sop to those who might have supported secession, expectations in the slaveholding precincts were probably high that black Americans would remain under white control.
So when perceived violations occurred, the anger was strong.
Creary unearthed other insights as he led a graduate research project on Maryland lynchings at Bowie State two years ago.
First, where the Equal Justice Initiative found that 25 percent of lynching cases nationwide involved allegations of sexual misconduct, nearly always against a white woman, the percentage in Maryland was three times that high.
Michael J. Pfeifer, a professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who has written several books on lynching, says that might be a statistical anomaly. But it might be that the number of free blacks in the state, particularly west of the Chesapeake, simply meant more opportunity for interaction across racial lines.
That meant more opportunity for everything from mixed signals between black and white acquaintances to clandestine interracial relationships and criminal sexual conduct, Pfeifer says.
Creary isn’t buying that so many black men “forced themselves” on white women. He subscribes to the theory shared by anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells as early as the 1890s: that charges of rape were white society’s means of dealing with the horror when consensual interracial relationships came to light.
“Read the [newspaper] accounts,” Creary says. “Time after time, the underlying ‘crime’ happened when the accused was visiting the white woman while her husband was ‘in Baltimore on business’ or ‘out working in the fields.’
“We know it’s necessary to read between the lines.”
Creary’s work challenged another widespread perception — that most of the state’s lynchings took place on the Eastern Shore, a region The New York Times described in 1931 as “lamentably backward,” that Sun columnist H.L. Mencken derided as “the Lynching Shore.”
The 15 that happened there is a sizable number for the sparsely populated region. But Creary points out that twice that many were perpetrated on this side of the bay.
“There’s this ongoing discussion around whether Maryland is in the South, the North or somewhere in between,” Creary says. “I think this puts that to rest. Maryland is a Southern state.”
Tina Johnson, an African-American arts administrator and mother of three in Princess Anne, was 12 years old on the day in 1998 when word came that a male cousin had been arrested after a public argument with his white girlfriend.
The reaction of her soft-spoken grandmother left her head spinning.
“Our men have to learn to stop messing around with white women,” Mary Armwood told her granddaughter. “It’s a good way to get killed.”
And Mary, then in her 70s, told Tina a story she had never heard — one that would shape the direction of her life.
Mary was about 10 on the day in October 1933 when her own cousin, an excitable and possibly developmentally disabled 22-year-old named George Armwood, came racing into the house.
George “belonged” to a white family across town — a common setup in Southern states long after the end of slavery — and had worked since boyhood in their lumber yard.
He blurted out that he was about to be accused of “having sex” with an elderly white woman, that “those white boys” actually did it — and that a crowd of police and angry whites was on its way.
He raced off and hid in the woods near his white family’s house. But they gave him up under pressure from the baying mob.
“They beat him really bad; they hung him; they killed him,” Armwood told her granddaughter, her eyes wide and voice shaking.
For years, Johnson figured it was just an odd family story. But years later, as an undergraduate design major at Salisbury University, she came across a brief account of the incident in a textbook on Maryland history.
She had two reactions: shock upon realizing this was the incident her late grandmother had told her about, and anger that it had merited only three paragraphs.
“I’m thinking, ‘We have to learn all these things about history, and this book covered a range of white Marylanders, but when it came to black Marylanders it was just a blip,’” she says, still sounding surprised.
“There were a lot of people lynched in the state of Maryland, and the only thing you do is give the last person who was lynched a brief mention, and it’s not even an honorable mention?
“Why is this still being censored?”
The experience inspired Johnson to do what others have done: dive into old newspaper accounts and dredge up the truth.
She’s now an expert on Armwood’s killing, the Maryland case that drew more press coverage than any other, including voluminous and graphically detailed coverage in the Afro-American and other black news outlets.
The coverage sparked so much outrage locally, nationally and around the world that it helped plant the seeds for the end of lynching as it had long been known.
Johnson says she might have been less interested in the details she learned — how the white mob had beaten her relative, stabbed him with ice picks, dragged him through the streets behind a car, hanged him not once but twice in the center of town and set his body on fire — than in the near-total absence of conversation about the incident in her hometown.
Her own grandmother never mentioned it again, she says, but Johnson believes the incident stayed with her — a woman who rarely left the house and seemed “frightened of white people” — for the rest of her life. She died at age 88 in 2010.
Kirkland Hall, 67, can relate.
The longtime physical education professor, coach and community activist, a lifetime resident of Princess Anne, learned as an adult that he’s a distant cousin to George Armwood.
Hall made the Armwood case the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation, a process that included hosting a consortium of authors about the lynching at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in 2011.
Nearly a hundred people attended, he says, but only two or three were from Princess Anne — a reflection, Hall believes, of the attitude the town has always had toward the incident.
He interviewed dozens of local African-American residents as part of his research, including several who were children at the time of the lynching. Some were still afraid to discuss it.
“Their parents said, ‘Don’t talk about it — and whatever you do say, say it in private,’ ” he says. He doesn’t recall hearing anything about the lynching in elementary school, high school or college.
Hall sees the silence around such trauma as a factor in what he calls his home county’s striking lack of cultural and economic progress.
Somerset County, of which Princess Anne is the seat, didn’t integrate its school system until 1969, for instance, making it one of the last in the United States to do so, and didn’t elect its first black county commissioner — Hall’s longtime friend the Rev. Craig Mathies — until 2010.
Hall believes that breaking the logjam will require bringing long-buried wounds into the open for all to see, discuss and understand.
“Better to take an honest look at history, no matter how painful it might be, than suppress it,” he says. “That’s the only way we’ll be able to understand where each other is coming from, feel like a community, and make progress.”
It’s a message Hall hopes to spread to a wider audience after November. He’s running to become the first African-American state delegate from Somerset County.
He believes he has a good chance. History would suggest otherwise.
“We still have a lot of healing to do,” he says.
Seeds of change
Lynching left a deep and lasting imprint on the nation.
It wasn’t just greater economic opportunity that drove the migration of more than 6 million blacks from the South to the industrial cities of the North during the first half of the 20th century. Historians say Jim Crow laws and the continual threat of violence were also powerful motivators.
Many African-American families pass stories of their forebears’ lynchings along to their children and grandchildren, Creary says, and this oral history helps frame their perceptions of modern social challenges such as the treatment of blacks by police and in the criminal justice system.
Haley and others believe whites who live in communities where lynchings took place still suffer from a form of collective guilt — a feeling exacerbated by a lingering resistance, perhaps out of shame, to talking about what their ancestors did.
“If you were someone who took part in a crime like this, or saw it and did nothing to stop it, or if you brought your child to see it, as many people did, what does that do to your sense of yourself?” he asks. “Where does it fit in your memory and your family’s?
“Keeping secrets about something like this degrades one’s own humanity and that of a community.”
Alexander Boulton agrees.
Boulton, who has taught African-American history at Stevenson University near Towson for 25 years, wrote a scholarly article on the Cooper case for the Maryland Historical Magazine.
The experience convinced the professor, who is white, that the nation’s lynching legacy didn’t just terrorize African-Americans and further entrench racial injustice in the United States; it scarred those who seemed to benefit.
“Whites still enjoy better wages and longer life expectancies than African-Americans, but there has also been a psychological [effect],” Boulton says. “Racism encourages us to see whites as superior, and that limits everyone’s vision, our ability to see the world clearly. It’s psychologically destructive.”
Devastating as it was, lynching carried the seeds of its own demise. Many of those seeds took root and sprouted in Maryland, specifically in Baltimore.
African-Americans gathered in the basements of Sharp Street Baptist, Bethel A.M.E. and other churches to discuss the issue, and the meetings became incubators for the early civil rights movement.
Shortly after Armwood was lynched, Lillie May Carroll Jackson, the longtime president of the local branch of the NAACP, joined forces with her daughter, Juanita Jackson, to establish the City-Wide Young People’s Forum, an activist group that advocated for racial equality and organized anti-lynching demonstrations.
Jackson, who went on to become the first African-American female lawyer in the state, would marry the future civil rights lobbyist Clarence Mitchell Jr.
Mitchell might never have pursued his legendary career had he not seen the aftermath of a lynching firsthand.
Mitchell was 22 and a recent college graduate when he took a job as a reporter for the Afro-American. He was assigned to cover the Armwood lynching.
By the time he completed the long ferry ride to the Eastern Shore, Armwood had been hanged and his body “barbecued,” as one enthusiastic participant put it.
Mitchell’s account spared no details — and writing it changed him.
“The skin of George Armwood was scorched and blackened while his face had suffered many blows from sharp objects and heavy instruments,” he wrote. “A cursory glance revealed that one ear was missing and his tongue, between his clenched teeth, gave evidence of his great agony before death.”
Mitchell’s son, former state Sen. Michael Mitchell, remembers him describing two things from that experience: “the awful smell of burning flesh, and the strange experience of going around and interviewing members of this white crowd who had witnessed this lynching party.”
Michael Mitchell, now 78, says his father told him that many witnesses expressed shame and guilt over what they had just seen and taken part in — and took that to mean there was hope for change.
Clarence Mitchell Jr. became a driving force behind the passage of some of the nation’s most significant civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the patriarch of a family that has been a pillar of African-American political power in Maryland.
He shared the memories with ensuing generations — including his grandson, former Maryland state senator and current radio personality Clarence Mitchell IV, when the younger man was in his teens.
It was during a drive to Washington with his grandfather that Clarence Mitchell IV heard the story of Armwood’s lynching, and it changed his life as well.
“In our family, we always felt that regardless of the challenges, you could always appeal to the better angels of people’s nature,” the talk-show host says. “That was the impact. We gravitated to public service.”
From truth to reconciliation
Students of what newspaper reporters once referred to as “Lynch Law” say the descendants of victims are unlikely to see formal justice done on behalf of their forebears.
No perpetrator is known to have been convicted of murder in America’s more than 5,000 lynching cases. And even though a handful of U.S. senators backed the passage of anti-lynching laws as early as the 1920s, Congress — repeatedly stymied by Democratic senators from the South — never passed such a bill.
In 2005, the Senate passed a resolution apologizing for its “failure to enact anti-lynching legislation” and expressing its “deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets” to victims’ descendants.
This year, the Department of Justice reopened the case of Emmett Till, the African-American 14-year-old who was shot to death, mutilated and thrown in a river in Mississippi in 1955 after he allegedly flirted with a white woman.
The woman’s husband and his half-brother were acquitted by an all-white jury but are said to have confessed their guilt to a reporter years later.
Even so, enough time had passed that witnesses had died, evidence had gone cold and interest in the case had waned. Though murder has no statute of limitations, legal experts say homicide charges are rarely filed if no living person can be shown to have been involved.
That leaves a different kind of justice — the kind for which Will Schwarz and other activists are now fighting.
The mere fact that lynching is not visible in the landscape doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, and it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have power.
Civil rights attorney Sherrilyn A. Ifill
It was three years ago that Schwarz, a white Baltimore County documentary filmmaker, attended a lecture by Stevenson at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Stevenson was on tour publicizing “Just Mercy,” his critically acclaimed and bestselling memoir about his work on behalf of young African-Americans he believed were being treated unfairly within Alabama’s criminal justice system.
The argument that Stevenson made connecting those issues to the nation’s lynching history mesmerized Schwarz. Even as a college graduate and history buff, he says, he had never heard or read much on the subject.
“I’m ashamed to admit this, but I was honestly unaware of the scale of the problem,” Schwarz says. “I had never heard anyone connect the dots around this American shame so eloquently.”
The evening convinced Schwarz that this dark legacy set in concrete racial disparities the nation is still struggling to resolve.
He followed the Equal Justice Initiative as it built the lynching museum in Montgomery. He learned the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is more than a critically acclaimed collection of modern sculptures, markers and historical accounts — it’s a project meant to reach into communities nationwide.
Schwarz formed a nonprofit, the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, as a clearinghouse for activities around the state. The organization is working to collect soil samples from every known lynching site and hopes to place memorial markers at each of those sites.
Each soil sample is to be collected in a jar bearing the victim’s name and other information, then sent for display in Montgomery.
Equal Justice Initiative staff traveled to Maryland last fall to work with local volunteer groups to collect samples from six lynchings on the Eastern Shore, including Armwood’s.
The samples are now part of the permanent display in Montgomery. The museum also boasts more than 800 steel columns, each bearing the name of a county in the U.S. in which a lynching occurred.
The Equal Justice Initiative created a duplicate for each column and is challenging someone from each of those counties, whether government official or private citizen, to take the duplicate home and put it on permanent display — a move likely to cost several thousand dollars per installation.
The idea is to prompt passersby to think about what happened on the site and why, and to spark conversation at the community level.
Ifill has been to the Alabama museum. She says the site brings many pilgrims to tears as they confront this brutal chapter of their nation’s history for the first time.
She likes the outreach component even more.
“I do think there should be markers in the public space about where these events happened,” Ifill says. “I think it’s important to know that [hundreds of] people assembled on a Friday night in Salisbury to kill Matthew Williams outside the courthouse.
“I think that the kinds of conversations you can then have in the community about where we have come from, about who we really are and who we want to be, can open up so many possibilities.”
Schwarz’s group is just beginning to reach out to the 18 affected counties in Maryland. Its first major public event is to take place in Baltimore next month.
“Lynching in Maryland: The Path From Truth to Reconciliation,” a half-day conference, will feature panels, films and conversations on Maryland’s lynching history, its continuing effects, and what people can do to help bring about healing.
I want to know all my history, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent.
Tina Johnson, a relative of lynching victim George Armwood
Dr. Kaye Whitehead, a filmmaker and radio personality who teaches African and African-American history at Loyola University Maryland, will moderate the event, including a panel discussion on how The Sun and other media outlets covered lynchings.
Creary and Michael Mitchell are among the scheduled speakers, as are Baltimore attorney and Maryland Lynching Memorial Project board member Billy Murphy, federal public defender Jim Wyda, and representatives of the Equal Justice Initiative, the Maryland State Archives and the Maryland Historical Society.
The conference is scheduled for Oct. 13 — five days before the 85th anniversary of the lynching of Armwood — at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture.
As religion and Maryland enterprise reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Jonathan Pitts covers news developments within faith communities and the many and sundry ways in which Marylanders live. A native of St. Louis, Mo., and a graduate of Haverford College and the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he came to the Baltimore Sun in 1999.