I originally thought I was going to write this encyclopedic book of lynching," says Sherrilyn Ifill, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore.
Instead, her research took a narrative turn as she focused on the tragic deaths of Matthew Williams and George Armwood, two black men murdered by white mobs on the Eastern Shore in the 1930s - the last two recorded lynchings in Maryland. Ifill wound up devoting five years to writing On the Courthouse Lawn ($25.95, Beacon Press).
Before teaching she had been an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, litigating civil rights cases in a number of Southern states. As Ifill recalls, in virtually every African-American community she worked, people "would always tell me about a lynching that happened." She subsequently moved to Maryland and got involved with an environmental justice case on the Eastern Shore. There she heard about Williams, Armwood and several other lynching victims. The seed for a book was planted.
Some 5,000 lynchings have been documented in the United States. Yet no one has ever been convicted of a lynching crime. Reverberations from that era of violence are still being felt in American society, Ifill contends. For that reason she is a proponent of racial-healing efforts modeled after the South African government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
"There is unfinished business in communities throughout this country," she notes in the introduction to her book, "where the reality of lynching and racial pogroms has never been fully confronted." Is there a definition per se of lynching?
For me there are certain features that make a racial murder a lynching. Perhaps the most important is that those acting in concert to commit the murder are not seeking to hide it. The murder is a message crime. It means not only to kill the victim, but to also send a message to the victim's community. Certainly in the African-American community, it is regarded as a violent form of white supremacy. What are some prevailing myths?
Many of us who only envision lynching in our head think of something happening in the backwoods; you know, where a group of hillbillies string somebody up. The truth is that many lynchings, and certainly most in Maryland, were public events. They happened in the center of town. That's why the book is called On the Courthouse Lawn. Everybody knew about it. It wasn't a secret act. What did you learn during your research? I was struck by that reference to the lynching in Duluth, Minn.
Yeah, Duluth, Minn., and Utah. Like most people, I thought of lynching as a Southern phenomenon, not that I thought it never happened in the North. But seeing the geographic diversity of lynching was kind of interesting. What was your sense of the failure of grand juries to indict in these cases? An act of complicity? Or was there a lack of witnesses that made it impossible to reach any conclusions of what happened?
These were not masked lynchings. No one was hiding themselves, and these were very small communities. As I point out in the book, the posture was to close ranks. It's not possible to have over 5,000 cases in the U.S. of lynching - most of them lynchings of black men - and not have one conviction and attribute that to coincidence or to the push of the crowd and their inability to see. Did you meet anyone who had a father or grandfather they suspect was involved?
I never met anybody who said, "I knew who had the rope" or "I knew who set the fire." And if I did, I'd have taken that information to the state's attorney. Did it cross your mind that there are probably still people alive who witnessed the lynchings?
Yes. There is a section in the book about children and what I regard as the silence that is imposed on those children. Children are following what their parents tell them to do. But in the silence that followed they would be locked into that; maybe locked into a sense of guilt, maybe a sense of confusion, maybe a refusal to revisit those events. They are in a kind of bondage that they need to be released from. They saw their neighbors and loved ones standing by or cheering, complicit in acts they know to be wrong.
There are conversations that have to happen within white families, within white communities, within white churches; as well as within black communities and black churches about their response to lynchings. It's not just that we need to have these interracial conversations. We need to break all levels of the silence. Any heroes in this?
I think there were some heroic lawyers and there were some darn good judges in some of these cases; not most, unfortunately. You speak of the acquiescence of crowds producing suspicion of whites among blacks that lingers today. Do you think whites in general are aware of the historical context? No, I don't. I think very often whites perceive black suspicions as irrational. What I mean to suggest is that it's rational in that it comes from a historical account that has been passed on. For example, if you were the grandchild of someone who survived the Holocaust, they would tell you certain things and say, "Never again," right? It's no different for the black community. But I think whites tend to be unaware of the specific history that grounds those reactions and those responses. Any particular story touch you? Any cases strike a chord?
I had different reactions to different cases. George Armwood was born on the birthday of one of my nephews. He resonated with me. I always imagined my nephew being in that situation.
Matthew Williams touched me because here was a kid from what was basically a middle-class home in Salisbury; by all accounts a perfectly nice, personable young man. And yet the story is that he snapped this day and shot his boss. There's such a mystery around that for me. Within the space of eight hours this nice, respectable kid was on the front page of The Salisbury Times called "Negro Slayer" and had been lynched. Speak to the lingering effects of that lynching legacy on the Eastern Shore.
There were the H.L. Mencken columns after the lynchings in which Mencken just decimated the entire Eastern Shore as essentially being made up of prehistoric people. The Shore kind of closes ranks and fights back. Many families boycotted The Baltimore Sun for decades. The Eastern Shore kind of got lost, got left behind. When the Eastern Shore next arrives on the scene in terms of the state's attention, it's with the Cambridge riots in the '60s. What has been the response from blacks and whites to the need for having a dialogue?
I do think that there is a moment right now in which many communities are looking at this past. It's an appropriate moment at the beginning of the 21st century to try and put some of these things to rest; at least try to confront them and grapple with them in a productive way, rather than leave them to rumor and innuendo. Do you have any private hope that somebody on the Eastern Shore is going to read your book and pick up the phone and say, "Gosh, my grandfather was one of those people involved in this lynching"?
I've never indulged that fantasy. People should break their silence, whoever they are, and find a way to unburden the community, not just the individuals, from something that I think really keeps the community from moving forward. We will talk for hours on end and debate affirmative action, but we don't want to talk about the issue that is the elephant in the middle of the room: and that is the incidents that really create the distrust and the shame or the fear and the guilt. At some point we have to be able to address this. But somebody down there knows names?
Absolutely. But what I had to do in writing this book was accept my job was not to tell the whole story. I never meant this to be a manhunt. Did any names crop up during your research?
One name did crop up through the rumor mill, but I didn't have enough [confirmation] that I could publish the name. Still amazing that people could get away with it?
Well, in those times you could. And not with a secret crime. You could do something openly and notoriously. It's not like a lynching took five minutes. And the curtain stays down. Wow! How powerful that must be generationally to be able to maintain that silence.
Sherrilyn Ifill will appear at the Edmondson Avenue branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on March 17 at 2 p.m. She spoke with The Sun by phone from her law school office.