Centreville: Justice Punches Negro

article headline2So sue me, because I admit to chuckling when I saw this headline in the December 15, 1919, article in The Baltimore Sun.  I chuckled not because of the seriousness of the topic, but because of the surprising images the headline provoked in my mind — that of a Magistrate punching anybody.  Call it perverse comic relief for the hours I spent in front of a computer screen reading and downloading newspaper articles on a host of sad, disturbing topics of the early twentieth century here on Delmarva.  But the subject was definitely serious.

I was searching the term “race riot,” a term I knew at that time was used broadly by the press to describe any disturbance considered racial that was not categorized any other way.  The term was overly- and sometimes wrongly- used.

This is the only newspaper article I have so far located about these incidents, so any other articles are appreciated.  But one needs to be cautious of all newspaper articles.  One needs to consider the source, the racial and social editorial biases, the intended readers, the brevity and limitations of reporter deadlines, the possible missing and erroneous information.  Still, if it weren’t for newspaper articles, we, years after the fact, might never have known something happened.  Given all of the above-described considerations, one might ponder what really was going on at the time.

Of particular interest is the date, 1919, the year known as “Red Summer” of unusually high bloodshed throughout areas of the country, even late in the year.  One might say, hey, it is just one isolated incident.  But the country was flooded with all kinds of so-termed isolated incidents.  The following is the article in its entirety, which is not from a local newspaper.  Be thinking of how many aspects of the story have been repeated in other newspaper accounts of that period — of the outsiders, the assumptions of fearful “uprisings” and “revenge,” when in truth there might only have been fears or gossiping, one just never knows the whole story from a newspaper article — then, and now.

Centreville, Md., Dec. 14 — Shortly before midnight last night local officers nipped in the bud what they believed was a plotted uprising by a group of negroes against the white people of Centreville.

Five colored men were arrested and placed in jail on the charge of disorderly conduct, pending the possible institution of more serious charges against them by the State’s Attorney.

The trouble started after Burgess Griffin, Charles Gassoway, John Hard and William Johnson, negroes, were arraigned before Justice Robert Coursey on the charge of gunning without licenses and for not having the written consent of Register of Wills William E. Bishop, on whose farm they were hunting.  When arrested they could not produce permits from the landowner, but an investigation showed that they all had obtained licenses.

Justice Coursey dismissed the case against Hard, as he was an employee on the Bishop farm and was legally entitled to hunt.  Griffin and Gassoway, however, were each fined $15 and costs.  Gassoway paid his fine, but Griffin is alleged to have used insulting language to the justice, and Magistrate Coursey promptly administered a sentence of 30 days in jail for contempt of court.

This angered Griffin so that he is alleged to have become more violent in his insults.  Instantly declaring the case closed, Justice Coursey attacked the negro and proceeded to administer a trouncing to him.

After Griffin had been taken to jail reports reached Justice Coursey’s office that a group of negroes were discussing means of getting revenge.  Several in the group are alleged to have made remarks calculated to start racial ill feeling, and Sheriff James W. Yeates and Constables John P. Williamson and Marion C. Council dispersed the crowd and ordered them to leave instantly for their homes.  Charles Griffin, Gilbert Griffin, Charles Fisher and Charles Gassoway, all negroes, were arrested on the technical charge of disturbing the peace, but it is understood that more serious charges will be instituted tomorrow.

All the men were released on bail and will be given a hearing before Justice Coursey next Friday night.

For nearly an hour last night there was every sign that a racial outbreak would be the result of the trials earlier in the evening.  It was rumored that certain negroes had threatened they would “get even” with Justice Coursey, and a crowd of whites gathered to protect the officers should any trouble start.

The officers met the situation promptly by ordering all crowds to disperse, and shortly after midnight the streets were practically cleared.

Centreville has never before had any public manifestation of ill feeling between the two races.  None of the negroes arrested is a resident of Centreville, and colored citizens of the town took no part in the disturbance.  Local officers are keeping a close watch to prevent any clash between the whites and blacks.

The men arrested last night all employed State Insurance Commissioner Thomas J. Keating as their counsel.

The word “never” can be a misleading word.  Centreville had a lynching, Asbury Green in 1891.  And in 1894, black Centreville residents in large numbers assembled in town to protect jailed William Jackson from a lynching.  And in 1909, the arrest of Charles Anderson in Centreville generated fearful reactions in the white press.  And these are just Centreville incidents; there were plenty others throughout adjoining counties that certainly must have generated “ill feeling” or at least fearful feelings.  So when reading these and other accounts of the time, stop to consider the validity of thoughts or expressions that purport that the past here on Delmarva “wasn’t so bad.”

–Linda Duyer

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