Some people would like to keep lynchings in the past. It happened so long ago, they will say. Why dredge up animosity from a generation ago?
One reader wrote in a recent letter to the editor: Resentment can be stirred among white individuals who hold no racist views yet are being made to feel that they somehow are responsible for what a very small number of prejudiced Marylanders did a century ago.
That sentiment displays a misunderstanding of history and why the state needs a commission to study and document lynching, as Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk is proposing to create.
In Maryland it is believed that at least 44 men were lynched between 1865 and 1933. And those are just the cases that are documented and don’t include those killed during slavery when plantation owners could do what they wanted with their “property” at will. Around the country, thousands were killed in what some describe as a “reign of terror.”
And it wasn’t just a handful of people who participated in these very public displays of what were, since people were rarely convicted, in effect legally sanctioned murders, often in supposed retribution for unproven “crimes.” For example, winking at a white woman. White people from all backgrounds — yes even professional educated people — would show up in masses in a form of sick vigilante justice to watch, cheering as if they were at a football game. They would take photos they turned into post cards and collect the genitalia of the male victims for souvenirs.
The practice tore families apart for no other reason than the desire of some to exert power and control over the African American community to keep them in their place. The traumatic remnants of lynching still exist today, and because public officials of the time were complacent in allowing it to happen — and in many cases, actively involved — the government should also play a leading role in seeking reconciliation for the abhorrent practice. Private groups such as the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project are already doing their part to bring attention to this issue, and it’s time the state stepped up as well.
The Annapolis City Council made a bold move last summer by formally apologizing through a resolution for historic lynchings in Maryland’s capital city, as well as Anne Arundel County. Officals elsewhere should do the same. After all, if the new courthouse weren’t in the way, Baltimore County council members could see the site of an 1885 lynching from their office windows.
Creating a statewide commission is the perfect way to expand such efforts to all communities in Maryland. Delegate Pena-Melnyk’s legislation proposes the formation of a 17-member Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would be made up of civil rights leaders, historians, faculty from the state’s four historically black colleges and the Maryland Attorney General’s office. The body would come up with ways to reconcile the harm lynchings inflicted on communities. Putting memorials near sites of where lynchings occurred would be a good start.
This type of response is especially needed as the country seems to be in an era where hate is openly expressed, including through references to lynchings. Ms. Pena-Melnyk has pointed to nooses found in her district as well as other parts of the state. During the last election cycle, Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith “joked” about attending a “public hanging.” Seems hard to believe that in a state that has the highest recorded number of lynchings in the country, she didn’t understand what she was saying.
In some cases, there seems to be a complete ignorance, or perhaps a blatant disregard, you be the judge, to the historic understanding of lynching. Just this week fashion brand Burberry apologized for featuring hoodie with a noose around the neck during a show at London Fashion Week. One of its models complained on social media that it was a tasteless depiction of suicide. For others, it looked like a lynching rope.
We understand that bringing lynching to the forefront will make people uncomfortable. Perhaps, that is why it took the U.S. Senate more than 100 years to pass legislation making lynching a crime. The House of Representative has yet to do so.
Reconciliation is not about playing the blame game but confronting our past — for better or worse. And we shouldn’t hide the past because it makes some of us ill at ease.
The opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice lynching memorial last year in Alabama helped spark a new conversation about the issue. It’s time that Maryland joins that conversation in a meaningful way.