A sign on the Heavenly Waters Cemetery off Tollgate Road in Bel Air after the cemetery was rehabilitated last year by local Boy Scouts. Lewis Harris, the victim of a 1900 mob lynching in Bel Air, is believed to be buried in the cemetery, according to records.
A sign on the Heavenly Waters Cemetery off Tollgate Road in Bel Air after the cemetery was rehabilitated last year by local Boy Scouts. Lewis Harris, the victim of a 1900 mob lynching in Bel Air, is believed to be buried in the cemetery, according to records. (David Anderson/The Aegis file)

With last week's opening of the new National Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., interest has been rekindled nationally in the thousands of African-Americans, mostly males, who were killed by white mobs, the common term being they were "lynched."

At least one lynching, that has been well-documented, occurred in Harford County, the hanging and shooting of Lewis Harris by an armed mob in Bel Air on March 26-27, 1900. The Aegis published an eyewitness account.

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There may have been more, as The Aegis story on the Harris Lynching also refers to one that occurred around Jarrettsville in 1868, with the victim being identified as "Jim Crow." An attempted lynching, which was thwarted by the county sheriff, was also reported in 1886.

According to its website, "The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is the nation's first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence."

The memorial contains 800 engraved weathered steel columns, each bearing the name of a county where a documented lynching or lynchings occurred. Some columns have the names of victims, some only have inscribed "unknown."

The Harford County sheriff's house, office and jail on Main Street in Bel Air, across from the courthouse, as it looked in the early 1950s, a half-century after an African-American man was forcibly removed and lynched by a white mob.
The Harford County sheriff's house, office and jail on Main Street in Bel Air, across from the courthouse, as it looked in the early 1950s, a half-century after an African-American man was forcibly removed and lynched by a white mob. (Aegis file / BSMG)

The memorial has been erected by the Equal Justice Initiative, which has investigated lynching incidents and their impact on black communities, particularly in the deep South, according to the memorial's website. In 2015, the organization produced a report documenting lynchings in 12 states and has since expanded its research to include lynchings outside the Deep South, including in Maryland.

The Equal Justice Initiative report for Maryland lists one lynching in Harford County, presumably the killing of Harris. (A request emailed Friday to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice asking whether Harford is represented in the memorial itself was not returned as of Sunday.)

With the opening of the national memorial, its operators have challenged local governments to erect their own monuments to lynching victims and are offering to provide facsimiles of the memorial's engraved columns for that purpose.

The Aegis on Friday requested comments from both the county executive's office and the Harford County Sheriff's Office about any interest either might have in promoting such a memorial.

"We were not aware of this memorial and without any prior knowledge it's difficult to speculate, but the county executive would want to defer to the local historical society, local civil rights groups and the Town of Bel Air on any future action," Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, replied via email.

The request for comment to the Sheriff's Office was based on Lewis Harris having been an employee of the sheriff at the time of his death and the strong defense then-Sheriff Andrew Kinhart, his chief deputy and two lawmen from the Town of Bel Air, all of them white, put up to keep the mob from taking Harris from their custody at the county jail.

"There are dark moments in our country's history, moments that were rooted in violence and hate. It is important as leaders, we stand against racial violence — or any violence directed against people because of the color of their skin, ethnicity, beliefs or profession," Gahler said. "This memorial may be difficult for some to bear witness, but we must. We must acknowledge our past, and denounce violence at every turn. It was the philosopher, George Santayana, who said it best, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'"

Cemetery for Harford County's poor given new life for Eagle Scout project

Boy Scout Jacob Richardson, of Bel Air, led his family and fellow Scouts to refurbish Heavenly Waters Cemetery off of North Tollgate Road to memorialize the poor, homeless and unknown people buried there for his Eagle Scout service project.

The Lewis Harris lynching was back in the spotlight locally just a year ago when Jacob Richardson led the rehabilitation of the former almshouse cemetery on Tollgate Road in Bel Air, also known as Heavenly Waters Cemetery, where records indicate Lewis is buried along with at least 94 other people, most of whom were indigent residents of a county run home between the late 1850s and 1962.

The county home was an honor farm, where residents grew food for themselves and for sale to help support the home's operations. The site today encompasses the county equestrian center, Tollgate yard waste facility (and the closed Tollgate landfill) and the Heavenly Waters Park.

The Aegis published its account of the Harris lynching on March 30, 1900, under the headline: "At the Rope's End – Lynched at Midnight. The article's author was not identified, which was not unusual as the paper did not routinely start publishing bylines on articles until the early 1980s.

What was unusual was the detailed reporting of what today would be called a "breaking news" event. The paper came out once weekly and usually republished articles from some other newspaper or magazine or "happenings" columns contributed by people in various communities around the county.

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The article details the circumstances of the arrest of Harris for allegedly assaulting a white woman and the efforts of the four lawmen to prevent a mob of at least 50 people, mostly wearing masks, from trying to take him from the jail. Scores of gunshots were exchanged before the mob broke into the jail by breaking down the rear door with sledgehammers and overwhelming Lewis' protectors. At least two people, described in the newspaper as "innocent bystanders," suffered gunshot wounds.

The crowd carried Lewis out of the building with a rope around his neck. He was taken down the Churchville Road a short distance, where he was hanged on a poplar tree in front of a house with a picket fence. According to The Aegis account of the lynching, the limb broke "to the horror of the crowd," and Lewis was then hung from another limb, with his feet about five feet off the ground, which were in turn tied to the fence. He was shot at least once in the abdomen.

The crowd dispersed and the body was left until the county medical examiner showed up a few hours later to examine it. Lewis was buried at 11 a.m. on March 27, less than 12 hours after the lynching. A fairly detailed account of the incident was published that same day by the Washington Star.

A grand jury was convened at the courthouse the same day, its all male members quickly absolving the sheriff of any responsibility. When it came to trying to identify those responsible, however, it was problematic, as most of those wore masks and some of the participants were believed to have come from out of town, possibly via train, as that was where the mob was initially seen assembling.

But the incident didn't go away without some attempt at justice. According to a report in The New York Times from May 15, 1900, Harford County Circuit Judge James David Watters instructed the incoming regular grand jury on May 14 to undertake "vigorous prosecution" of the men responsible for murdering Lewis Harris.

"An assault on the law itself now confronts me, and I now stand appalled," the article quoted Watters, who was a Confederate cavalryman in the Civil War and whose portrait hangs in the courthouse. "...To tolerate mob law is to endanger organized government."

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"When a prisoner in charge of the Sheriff is taken from jail and hanged by a mob, the offense is murder; when the Sheriff himself is attacked, it is war against the State," Watters said. "No more important case could, in my judgment, come before you. I charge you as earnestly as possible to investigate this matter fully, and I place no limit as to time and expense."

According to the Times report: "Several persons whom rumor connects with the lynchings were in the courtroom, attentive listeners to the proceedings, and a number of well-known men are greatly disturbed over the judge's charge."

No one was ever arrested in connection with the lynching of Lewis Harris.



Harford County’s “Choose Civility” campaign kicked off with a breakfast event at the Water’s Edge Events Center in Belcamp on Wednesday.
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