Amid the phony outrage over the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” and the whining of those who hate to face the nation’s history of racism, Maryland’s public reckoning with the ugliest aspects of the state’s past continues with dutiful honesty and deliberate righteousness. Distinctive markers have been set in place to acknowledge the forgotten victims of lynchings from Salisbury on the Eastern Shore to Cumberland in the west, and another went up this week in Southern Maryland.
On Monday, Marylanders gathered near the old jailhouse in Leonardtown, the seat of St. Mary’s County, to dedicate the latest blue-and-gold marker, this one memorializing Benjamin Hance. He was just 22 years old in June of 1887 when a mob broke into the jail, dragged him away and hanged him from a witch hazel tree. Hance was Black, the mob white. A white woman claimed that Hance had made “an improper proposal,” and nothing incited a racist mob like such an accusation. Though there were plenty of witnesses, no one was ever held responsible for the young man’s murder.
“We remember Benjamin Hance in support of justice for all,” the marker states.
The Leonardtown memorial is the fifth in the state. Others have gone up over the past two years in Anne Arundel, Allegany, Baltimore and Wicomico counties. There are more to come.
Why this formal acknowledgment? Why these reminders of atrocities? I’m sure there are plenty of Marylanders who don’t want to hear any of this, but here goes:
As in a family with dark secrets — and I stretch here to call the United States in 2021 a “family” — we need to end the denial and acknowledge the harm, physical and psychological, inflicted on generations of Black Americans. That’s how we move forward. Acknowledging the terror lynchings with memorial markers is not a manifestation of white guilt. It’s simply the embrace of truth, and long overdue.
Maryland might be thought of as “the northernmost Southern state,” but how many of us knew that lynchings had taken place here? Wasn’t that something that happened only in the deeply racist South, in the states of the Confederacy?
Sherrilyn Ifill’s book, “On The Courthouse Lawn,” came out in 2007 and focused on Matthew Williams and George Armwood, the last two victims of lynchings in Maryland. Ifill, the University of Maryland law professor who now leads the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, got the conversation started here. “There is unfinished business in communities throughout this country,” Ifill wrote, “where the reality of lynching and racial pogroms has never been fully confronted.”
The EJI, led by acclaimed attorney Bryan Stevenson, inspired a movement to break the silence in several states. The result in Maryland is the memorial project, now preparing for its fourth annual conference on Saturday. The mission of the memorial project is “to advance the cause of reconciliation in our state by documenting the history of racial terror lynchings, advocating for public acknowledgment of these murders and working to honor and dignify the lives of the victims.”
This isn’t “critical race theory.” It’s history. It’s a story that generations of Americans never heard or heard only in spare reference during history class. That’s changing now. That’s a good thing.
The Maryland Lynching Memorial Project offers a strong program for its virtual conference this weekend, and it serves as an answer to the foolish controversy over “critical race theory.” I challenge those who protest the inclusion of racism in teaching American history to break away from Fox News for a few hours and tune in. (Tickets are $10.)
The lineup includes a message from Stevens, the founder of the EJI and author of “Just Mercy.” He’s expected to talk about the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by the General Assembly to investigate the lynchings — to name perpetrators and collaborators, if possible — and to suggest ways toward racial healing. A panel will discuss the status of the commission’s work.
Also on the lineup: Charles Chavis, vice-chair of the commission and author of “The Silent Shore,” a new book about the Williams lynching in Salisbury in December 1931; Scott Seligman, author of “A Second Reckoning,” about John Snowden, a Black man from Annapolis who was convicted of a 1917 murder by an all-white jury and hanged, but pardoned decades later; DeNeen Brown, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland and director of a new project, “Printing Hate,” that chronicles the role of newspapers in encouraging racial violence; and actress Debra Mims, who will portray the anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett in what is billed as a preview of a one-woman show called, “Shine the Light of Truth!”
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The conference also will hear the story of Walter Manning, a Baltimore-born Tuskegee airman and fighter pilot whose plane was shot down over Austria in the waning days of World War II. Manning parachuted to the ground and was captured, but a Nazi-led mob pulled him from jail and hanged him from a lamppost. Research suggests that those who lynched Manning were emulating how Americans treated Black men at home.