Townsend Cook was sitting in his mother’s home 136 years ago this week when a gang of white men dragged him out after a white Mount Airy woman accused him of assault.
“They all said, ‘lynch him, lynch him here,’” Diane Hurd, a member of the Carroll County Coalition of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, said in her recount of what happened that night.
Cook, a Black man, was instead taken to a jail — the Old Westminster Jail that still stands next to the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office. That’s where a gathering of remembrance took place Wednesday evening, June 2, the anniversary of when Cook, in Carroll’s only documented lynching, was killed in 1885.
Hurd, who spoke of the events in first person at the podium outside the jailhouse, said Cook was taken to the jail around midnight but was broken out by around 40 men in masks who put a rope around his neck. They put him in a wagon and headed toward Mount Airy.
Cook, 19 or 20 at the time, was taken to a farm along Md. 27. He was shot in the back of the head twice before the men hanged him from a white oak tree. Pinned on the tree was a handwritten note with the letterhead “law office of Milton G. Urner, of Frederick Md” claiming Cook confessed to his crimes, Hurd said. However, Maryland Archives state Cook denied the assault allegations.
Pamela Zappardino, a coalition member, said they are working to add markers documenting what happened to Cook at both the jailhouse and Md. 27 where the lynching took place. They will also plan to have a soil collection ceremony. It’s an event organized by the Equal Justice Initiative to collect soil from the same grounds a lynching took place.
“It’s hard to make sense of something so senseless,” fellow coalition member Ava Shivers, said at the podium.
She said learning about Townsend Cook felt like yesterday because it reminded her of the recent stories she hears on the news about racial injustice.
She said she compares the Black experience to the movie “The Matrix.” The movie is about a dystopia where the human race is trapped in a simulation to distract from the reality of robots using humans as an energy source. But there were people who “fought the good fight to bring the truth to light,” Shivers said.
She added that America lives in a slightly different reality where Black people are seen as making significant progress based on their financial, career and life goals.
“As much as things have changed, things have remained the same,” she said.
Shivers said the disparities still exist based on statistics she found from the census, Pew Research and other sites. For instance, she shared that in 2018, 86% of Black Americans had a high school diploma, as well as 90% of white Americans. However, only 25% of Black Americans receive a higher education degrees, while 35% of white people received those same degrees. Shiver added Black people are three times as likely to live in poverty than white people.
She also mentioned day-to-day acts of racism like white people calling Black people the N-word and instances when white women clutch onto their purse when in the elevator with a Black man. Shivers, a Black woman, added there are still certain states and counties she does not feel safe traveling to and her Black friends say they have to tell their sons the best ways to survive a police-enforced traffic stop.
Shivers said the best way to bring the truth of the Black experience to light is to continue speaking about it.
“Because the truth is truly not a light that can be hidden for long,” she said.
Jordan Brooks, a student from Westminster, said fellow students push away the fact that racism exists, though he’s seen and heard it in the school buildings.
“Lynching still happens in our community, but just in different forms,” he said. “This memorial could be a change to many things.”
Jesse Harrington, a member of Carroll’s coalition, and Clyde Johnson, a fellow member and Carroll Community College’s executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion, lit two candles during the gathering.
Johnson also wrote a script explaining a libation ceremony, which was performed and read by fellow member Roxanna Harlow. The pouring of the libations is an African tradition done to pay homage to ancestors.
Before the ceremony ended with a singalong of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” member Erin Snell shared a few words of remembrance of Cook and encouraged white people to face the truth of racial violence and injustice.
“None of us are well or whole when some of us are harmed,” she said.