At least 44 men in Maryland and thousands nationwide lost their lives to lynchings. Now activists are shining a light on the gruesome practice hoping to start an honest and healing conversation. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun video)
Supporters of legislation that would create a commission to explore and address Maryland’s lynching history made their case to state lawmakers Tuesday, the latest step in a grassroots movement that appears to be gaining momentum.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, had the backing of a bipartisan group of more than 50 co-sponsors when she presented her argument at an afternoon hearing in Annapolis before the House Judiciary Committee.
Pena-Melnyk told an overflow crowd in the committee chamber that lynching was a scourge that took the lives of at least 40 African-Americans in the state between 1854 and 1933, and that the brutish practice entrenched the power imbalances between white and minority Americans that continue to afflict the country today.
The proposed commission of more than a dozen historians, archivists and activists would carry out research on those and other lynchings that may have taken place, hold public meetings in the communities where the killings occurred, and include their findings and recommendations in a report to the governor and members of the General Assembly by the end of 2021.
The Democrat, who represents portions of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, also pointed to at least four incidents in the past year in which nooses were found in various places in Maryland, including in two middle schools in her legislative district.
“This is an opportunity for us to send the message that the lives of the 40-something people really mattered,” Pena-Melnyk said. “And given the current divisiveness over race in the country, passing this bill is really the right thing to do.”
The number of lynchings known to have taken place in Maryland is modest compared to the death toll in such states as Mississippi, which led the nation with 654 lynchings, or Georgia, second with 589, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based research center.
But 40-plus lives lost to racial hatred were more than enough to create a bloody foothold for the kind of white supremacy Pena-Melnyk said is responsible for such ongoing societal ills as police brutality against blacks and the reported rise in hate crimes in Maryland in recent years.
Nicholas Crary agreed.
Crary was a professor of history and government at Bowie State University when he researched and wrote about lynching in Maryland. He told lawmakers that taking a hard look at this chapter of state history is not “dredging up the past,” as critics have suggested, but rather represents an effort to rectify matters that have left open wounds among African-Americans in the state.
He made reference to the five men known to have been lynched in Anne Arundel County.
“Rather than thinking of it as bringing up the past, we should think of it as asking what the responsibility of this body would be if it was aware that a law enforcement agency — for example, the Anne Arundel sheriff’s office — knew that five murders had been committed, if they knew who the perpetrators were, but they chose not to arrest them,” he said.
“What responsibility does this body have to those victims, to their families and to their communities?” said Crary, who is now affiliated with the University of Iowa’s Center for Diversity and Enrichment.
Former NAACP president and Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous told the committee of his days as a young reporter in Mississippi, where he interviewed descendants of lynching victims as well as those of men who had committed lynchings.
The memories “absolutely haunted” the families of victims, Jealous said.
But, he added, it also haunted the families of perpetrators, as they have emotionally buried and had to live with the shame of the crimes.
That’s why It’s important for everyone that the history of lynching be brought into the open in Maryland, Jealous said.
“This is truly about all of us,” he said.
The bill’s language asserts, among other things, that lynchings deprived victims not just of life but of the right to due process; that no one in Maryland was ever “tried, convicted, or otherwise brought to justice” in lynching cases; that “various state, county and local governments colluded” in the crimes and protected perpetrators; and that no victim’s family ever received a formal apology or compensation.
“Restorative justice requires a full knowledge, understanding and acceptance of the truth before there can be any meaningful reconciliation,” the bill states.
The legislation proposes the formation of a 17-member Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel that would include one official each from the state chapter of the NAACP, the state historical society, the state’s four historically black colleges, the Maryland State Attorney General’s office and the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, a nonprofit.
The panel would be charged, among other things, with holding public hearings in each of the regions in which a lynching is known to have occurred, gathering recommendations for “reconciling communities affected by racially motivated lynchings,” and working toward the erection of memorial plaques or signage at or near the sites of those lynchings.
Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, proposed a similar bill in 2016. Only eight co-sponsors signed the proposed legislation, which died in committee.
In the time since, Rosenberg said, the nation’s lynching history has attracted wider attention.
The Equal Justice Initiative played a major part in that, he said, when it opened last year the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a $20 million museum centering on lynching, in Montgomery, Ala.. He also cited incidents such as the fatal confrontation between white supremacists and a group of protesters in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, which he said highlighted the ongoing threat of racial violence in the United States.
Will Schwarz, a Towson filmmaker and the president of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, was among those who testified. He has led a ceremony in honor of one victim, and the group he heads promotes awareness of the state’s lynching history.
The nonprofit is working with local coalitions to develop community remembrance projects in eight of the 18 counties in which lynchings occurred.
Schwarz told the committee that the Montgomery County Council appointed a panel last month to support projects in honor of the three men known to have been lynched in the county — and that an Annapolis group is in talks with the Equal Justice Initiative to sponsor the installation of a commemorative marker in honor of local lynching victims.
Schwarz led the first statewide conference on lynching in Maryland in October, and a documentary he produced on George Armwood, the state’s last lynching victim, was one of three that drew hundreds to a screening in Annapolis last week.