BALTIMORE — It was midway through a brutal accounting of lynching in Maryland and elsewhere in America — the lack of humanity, the mob attacks, the bodies burned — and Toni Pratt wasn’t sure this is what she needed.
Pratt, a community organizer from Annapolis, had joined more than 100 documentarians, lawyers, activists and citizens to talk about history’s lingering grip and it left her alternating between quiet rage and teary eyes. “It seems like it’s opened up some wounds I’d rather have still closed,” Pratt said.
The Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, which organized a “day of remembrance, reflection, and reckoning” in Baltimore on Saturday, is trying to nudge forward a conversation that has been going on, in fits and starts, since George Armwood, the state’s last recorded lynching victim, was killed 85 years ago this week.
For many who came, history is more than an echo in their lives and community.
Tina Johnson was a young girl when her crying grandmother described seeing Armwood — a cousin said to have an intellectual disability — terrified for his life. Johnson was respectful as she listened, but “I kind of just shrugged it off,” Johnson said. “It was one of those things,” she said, something she put in the bygone category of atrocities where she also placed slavery.
She thought things like that didn’t happen any more. But after exploring her family’s history while in college, and in thinking about life in America in the years since her grandmother died in 2011, she’s not so sure. She said the country is “making steps, but we need to make more.”
“I guess you can say I was here to represent her,” Johnson said. “There need to be more people who aren’t black attending these events. There need to be more people who are uncomfortable. If you are uncomfortable, it shows you have some sort of empathy for what other communities are going through.”
Armwood had been accused of attacking a white woman and was pulled out of a cell in Somerset County in 1933 after a mob of about 1,000 people stormed the jail. Before he was hanged, he was “dragged through the streets, beaten, stabbed and had one ear hacked off,” according to Clarence Mitchell Jr. of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper.
Mary Douthit, who grew up in North Carolina but is now a high school teacher of history and government in Baltimore, evoked the case of Freddie Gray. Gray died in 2015, days after police arrested him at a West Baltimore housing project and put him, unbelted, in the back of a van, where he sustained severe spinal injuries.
“Somebody posed a question: ‘Was Freddie Gray lynched?’ We say he was,” Douthit said. “That’s not the term we use now. He was publicly lynched, via a vehicle instead of a tree.”
Douthit said she has posed her own question: “Have we progressed at all?”
“I say, in certain instances, we have. But, if you look at the total picture, we haven’t,” Douthit said. “We’re still grappling with the same questions in 2018 that were grappling with in the forties, fifties and sixties,” and at the base of those are race and racism, she said.
The Maryland memorial project was founded by filmmaker Will Schwarz, who has worked with the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal rights group in Montgomery, Ala., to gather and display soil from lynching sites.
“One of the features of American exceptionalism is denial,” Schwarz said. “People don’t talk about it. They don’t like to talk about it.” On Saturday, the names of 39 people who were lynched in Maryland between 1854 and 1933 were read aloud, along with another identified only as “unknown man,” who was killed in Harford County in August 1868. Schwarz hopes to commemorate the killings in community gatherings and with monuments.
“My dream is we have 40 of those ceremonies in Maryland,” he told those gathered at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, which focuses on Maryland’s African American history. “That’s why we exist. I hope you’ll help us along the way.”
Nicholas Creary, an assistant professor of history at Bowie State University, has worked with students to unearth new details on Maryland’s lynchings from newspaper accounts. They found that many cases fell into what they called “the brute negro narrative.” The accounts read like they were “written from the same script,” of black men being accused of assaulting or attempting to assault white women, Creary said.
But that was often code for something else entirely, either other disputes, fabrications or, Creary said, consensual sexual relationships “which violated the whole principle of white supremacy.”
Creary said that the state needs to set up a truth and reconciliation commission, a state-sponsored body that would be required to submit an official accounting.
“Just because we forget that these things happened doesn’t mean they didn’t happen,” Creary said.
The Equal Justice Initiative opened a museum and memorial earlier this year in Alabama that includes hanging steel columns, along with duplicates meant to be taken back to counties across the country where some of the more than 4,000 lynchings took place. Those will begin going out next year, and communities in Maryland have reached out to take part.
Evan Milligan, a law fellow at the group, helps place historical markers at lynching sites. He said communities need to “create a space” for such physical monuments by finding ways to talk to each other, no matter how excruciating the topic. And learning how to talk about lynching will help propel other conversations, including about the justice system and high rates of imprisonment among African Americans, he said.
“We talk about the link between slavery, racial terrorism, the resistance to the civil rights movement and mass incarceration,” Milligan said. Lynchings were “narrative acts of violence. They communicated a message to entire communities.”
For Pratt, the day of reopening wounds, in the end, served as a reminder. “We are human and we need to be acknowledged as such,” she said. She’s active in her community, working with a group called Anne Arundel Connecting Together on issues including gun violence, mental health and education.
“It makes us work harder to get the job done,” Pratt said. “We’ve already started.”