When the old Towson jailhouse was turned into a light-filled office space, Baltimore County officials and business leaders cheered. Once an abandoned eyesore, the 163-year-old stone building off Bosley Avenue would have a bright future.
Now some residents are pushing to recognize a disturbing piece of its past: the day in the summer of 1885 when a mob of 75 men lynched Howard Cooper, a black teenager imprisoned there.
On Saturday, a group plans to gather outside the jail to scoop soil from the ground as part of a national campaign to recognize the victims of lynchings.
The Equal Justice Initiative, the Montgomery, Ala., nonprofit behind the campaign, has documented more than 4,000 racial-terror lynchings in 12 states from 1877 through 1950. They include dozens in Maryland.
“I knew there were lynchings that happened, but I never realized the scale,” said Will Schwarz, a documentary producer and writer who lives in Towson. “I’m angered that the history is unknown.”
Schwarz and Sandy Laubenheimer, another county resident, helped coordinate the Towson gathering for the national Community Remembrance Project. Another group collected soil from six lynching sites on the Eastern Shore last fall.
The soil is to be part of an exhibit at a new museum in Montgomery to open in April. The Equal Justice Initiative is also planning a national memorial to lynching victims on a six-acre site overlooking the city.
At a time when the country is debating monuments in public spaces, organizers say, Americans must acknowledge this part of history to understand the inequality that persists today.
“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape,” Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said in a statement. “This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”
Nicholas Creary, a professor of history at Bowie State University, called lynching “a tool of terror” that was used to serve the ideology of white supremacy.
“This is a part of American history that needs to be incorporated into mainstream history textbooks,” he said. “People need to talk about this. … The criminalization of African-Americans and the presumption that we’re criminals, I think, is something that still plays out.”
In 2016, Creary and his students set out to document white-on-black lynchings in Maryland. They have found 40. Creary contends that Maryland, though part of the Mid-Atlantic, was “very much a Southern state” when it came to lynchings.
Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties had the most lynchings, with five each.
Cooper’s lynching was one of two documented in Baltimore County, Creary said.
The Bowie State research found that 27 of the 40 lynchings involved allegations of rape or assault of a white woman or girl.
That was the case in Cooper’s lynching. An all-white jury convicted the 17-year-old of raping and trying to murder Kate Gray, a 16-year-old white girl, according to the Maryland State Archives. The archives has documented lynchings through its Legacy of Slavery program.
Cooper, who reportedly confessed to the crime, was sentenced to death by hanging. On July 12, 1885, a few weeks before his scheduled execution, the mob used a flagpole to break into the jail’s back door. Covering their faces with muslin masks and handkerchiefs, the attackers smashed the lock of Cooper’s cell, took him outside and hanged him from a tree.
Lawrence Brown, a Morgan State professor of community health and policy who studies segregation, said lynchings were “the most grotesque manifestation” of the white supremacist belief that black people were “demons" or “beasts.”
“Those beliefs were the basis of racial segregation,” he said. “If you believe that someone is innately criminal, if you believe someone is subhuman, then you don’t want them to live near you.”
Lynchings, he said, were “rooted in the notion that black people needed to be put back in their place.”
“The trauma is not just to the person that is lynched. It’s to the community that has to sit by helplessly when this killing takes place.”
The former county jailhouse, built in 1855, was renamed Bosley Hall when a $1.7 million renovation was completed in late 2010. The tenants today include lawyers, information technology workers, a psychologist, public relations workers and other professionals, developer Marty Azola said.
The county still owns the property, which falls under the purview of the Department of Recreation and Parks. Barry F. Williams, the department’s director, plans to attend the soil collection.
“I like the project because it’s humanizing what actually happened,” Williams said. “It’s a stain our history, and it’s a story that needs to be told.”
Williams said he’s intrigued by the Community Remembrance Project. He said he would be attending the gathering not only as a county official, but also out of personal interest.
“I was in the first group of African-American children who went to schools that were legally desegregated, so all of those things were very real for me,” he said.
Schwarz is launching an organization called the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. One of its aims is to eventually place markers at lynching sites.
Williams said he does not support the idea at the Bosley Hall property. He says he is concerned about the effect on its tenants. He doesn’t want the site to become a “lightning rod” or a “battleground.”
Del. Sandy Rosenberg sponsored legislation in 2016 that would have created a state commission to make recommendations on where to place markers at Maryland lynching sites.
“I think that knowledge of how we go to where we are today is important,” said Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. But “we just weren’t able to generate sufficient support to move the bill.”
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell and reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.