My short answer to the question is I’d like to think so.
In January 2019, Maryland Delegates led by Joseline Pena-Melnyk, D-21-Anne Arundel, introduced Maryland House Bill 307, and the bill was presented to the House Judiciary Committee hearing on February 12.
The proposed bill seeks to establish a Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission with broad powers “…to hold certain public meetings, receive certain recommendations, and make certain recommendations; authorizing the Commission to investigate certain cases of racially motivated lynching…” If passed, the Act, as presented, “shall take effect June 1, 2019” and “remain effective for a period of 3 years and 1 month…”
The term truth and reconciliation has been utilized formally in several places, including in South Africa and Liberia. I have in my living room the lengthy Liberian final 2009 report on the subject. The report cover included the phrase “Confronting our difficult past for a better future.” The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation commission had a broad mandate to investigate and determine responsibility for domestic crimes and violations of human rights and humanitarian law that cruelly torn apart the country following the different coups which overturned the country’s government. It was a by far broader mandate than Maryland’s proposed commission. The Maryland commission is merely directed to investigate its lynching history. But is Maryland prepared to report on what it finds?
Truth and reconciliation are powerful words. Reconciliation is likely the most misunderstood of the two. Reconciliation is not a vague kumbaya resolution. The term is best understood when thinking of it in the monetary context, of reconciling our debits and credits in our bank accounts, reconciling the differences through search for the truth of the mistakes that led to the differences. It’s not let’s-all-hold-hands-and-forgive-one-another, but the reconciled truths can help with understanding that might, using the Liberian sentiment, lead to a better future.
But truth and reconciliation if done fully and within historical limitations can be a difficult look at our history. It’s not just a hard look at the cruelty and inhumane deaths of African Americans through lynching; it’s also a hard look at who perpetuated these crimes. Is Maryland ready for this?
When it comes to the 1931 and 1933 lynchings of the lower Maryland Eastern Shore, time is not so distant, especially considering that descendants are only one or two generations away from those who experienced the crimes. What follows are some of recorded hard facts, pertaining to the 1933 lynching of George Armwood in Princess Anne.
Maryland Attorney General William Preston Lane accumulated eyewitness accounts and presented to Congress the names of the men identified as suspected in the lynching of George Armwood.
Rusty Heath — full name believed to be Marby L. Heath, then living in Princess Anne, formerly living in Salisbury. Heath was identified by several Maryland Police officers at different locations in the town, including as seen “pulling on the other end of the rope while the Negro was hanged.”
William P. Hearn — identified as a contract hauler by truck, address of Shad Point near Salisbury; identified by State officers, including as directing the crowd and as the man who threw the rope over the tree at the first hanging.
Irving Adkins — age 33, identified as a Saturday night officer at Princess Anne; also identified as a track foreman for the Pennsylvania Railroad, address between Princess Anne and Salisbury, identified by police as the one who yelled “Let’s go!” and led the mob inside the jail, held the battering ram used at the front door.
William H. Thompson — a Princess Anne druggist, identified by officers as aided by a photograph of Thompson on the coroner’s jury conducting the investigation into Armwood’s death; identified as also holding onto the battering ram used at the jail.
Jack Walloper — identified by different names, reported to be Jack Sterling or Jackson Sterling or Randolph Sterling, address Crisfield; identified at the first hanging site and as pulling on the rope at the second hanging (at the downtown intersection where the body was subsequently burned); identified by all officers as the leader.
Shelburn Lester — occupation meterman for the Eastern Shore Public Service Company, address Salisbury; identified by one of the officers as yelling and entering the jail, and allegedly was the man who hit Captain Johnson.
Big Boy Smith — a locally-known prize fighter, address Salisbury, identified by officers as at the jail, pushing against the police line, and holding a brick, which he refused to drop when commanded by a State Police officer.
Martin Duer — identified but with uncertainty of his name, his address believed to be either Pocomoke or Snow Hill; identified by officers as hanging and holding the rope at the first hanging location.
William S. McQuay — of Pocomoke, a chain store operator.
A few other crowd members were identified. In November of 1933, four men were located and arrested: Thompson, Hearn, Adkins and McQuade. They were located and first brought to the Armory building in Salisbury. The work to arrest all of the identified men was cut short due to mob activity in Salisbury outside of the Armory; and amid growing crowds, fire hoses, and tear gas, the four were taken to Baltimore.
Soon there after, Judge Robert F. Duer at Princess Anne issued a writ of habeas corpus for the return of the arrested men. At a hearing at the courthouse in Princess Anne on November 29, Chief Judge John R. Pattison released the suspects for “insufficient evidence.”
At the hearing, the four returned prisoners were treated as heroes. Their return to Princess Anne was delayed for about an hour or so, during which time “some of the townspeople had organized squads and driven about 300 negroes out of town” (Baltimore Sun).
State Attorney John B. Robbins stated in court that the Maryland Attorney General had not provided him with witnesses and he therefore agreed with the release of the prisoners. Reportedly, Robbins’ words agreeing with the release were greeted with great approval by spectators, but that Robbins stood, saying he’d like to say something else. Judge Duer interrupted by cautioning, “In times like these, we often say too much.” A rebuked Robbins replied, “I have learned to keep my mouth shut.” The whole hearing lasted eight minutes, and the Baltimore Sun reported, “applause sweeps over town as siren shrieks news.”
The above image is from The Baltimore Sun, of the crowd assembled near the courthouse, awaiting the arrival of the four prisoners being returned to Princess Anne. The next three photos are from the newspaper archives at the University of Maryland at College Park, also showing the waiting crowd, as well as happy spectators and officials after the four were released by the court. Spectators were so happy, a few of them tried to take parts of the courtroom for souvenirs.
These accounts are in the public record yet may be unfamiliar to most people. For the 1931 lynching of Matthew Williams in Salisbury, the names of witnesses called to an inquiry the month following the lynching are identified in the newspapers. Those witnesses, both black and white, have descendants. And this does not even take into account other factual matters which will undoubtedly be identified during the course of the work of this Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Is Maryland ready for the results? Will people understand that this isn’t about blaming descendants, but rather setting the record straight, or as straight as is possible? I’d like to think that Maryland is indeed ready for this, that it can handle the truth wherever it leads. If Maryland can handle its lynching history, then maybe some day it can handle more of its racial history. And if so, maybe one day Maryland can celebrate all its history — the glorious and the difficult — with ease and wonder. And if my home state can take it, I will be immensely proud.