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Law Professor Finds Lynchings Have Lasting Impact On Race Relations


TEASER: The last two recorded lynchings in Maryland, in 1931 and 1933, and other incidents of racial violence in the Jim Crow era on the Eastern Shore, still affect the region, University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill argues in her book On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century.

Matthew Williams was dragged from his hospital bed and lynched outside the former Wicomico Hotel. Two years later, George Armwood was stabbed and hanged before a mob dragged his body to the Somerset County Courthouse and set it on fire.

Those two lynchings, in 1931 and 1933, were the last recorded in Maryland, and it’s unclear whether any witnesses are still alive. But those events — and other incidents of racial violence in the Jim Crow era on the Eastern Shore — still affect the region, University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill argues in her book On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century.

Ifill recounts the lynchings and suggests that racial violence isn’t just a history lesson — it’s a trust-shattering horror that taints relationships between Blacks and Whites even today. Many White Eastern Shore natives don’t even know the lynchings occurred, Ifill says, but for Blacks, they left a legacy of fear and mistrust.

“The wounds of White supremacy,” she writes, “still stand open and untreated.”

While researching the book, published in February, Ifill says many Blacks from Baltimore and Washington D.C., warned her to be careful on her trips to the Eastern Shore — seven decades after the lynching took place. Racial tensions simmer to this day along the Eastern Shore. And much of it expresses itself in ways seemingly unrelated to the lynchings, such as a recent debate over where to put a statue of abolitionist and native son Frederick Douglass.

Nationwide, 4,730 people were lynched between 1882 and 1951, according to Tuskegee Institute record, although some historians consider that estimate to be conservative. Nearly three-fourths of the victims — 3,437 — were Black.

Maryland reported 25 to 30 lynchings during the same period, depending on the source. Ifill says seven of them occurred on the Eastern Shore.

She says she didn’t intend to single out the Eastern Shore. But as she researched nationwide lynching accounts for a possible book, she found the Eastern Shore an ideal example of how Northern and Southern communities have failed to come to grips with the legacy of lynching.

“It’s like it never happened,” says Mary Ashanti, president of the Wicomico County NAACP, who said there is no marker to note where Williams was lynched. Even people with relatives who witnessed it say the lynching was a taboo topic.

“We didn’t really talk about it,” says Salisbury City Councilwoman Shanie Shields, whose late grandfather, James Stanley Pinkett, worked at the Wicomico Hotel and was one of the few Black witnesses to the Williams lynching.

Pinkett was a bellhop at the hotel and saw an angry mob gather, calling for the death of Williams, who was accused of killing his employer in a shooting at the man’s business. Williams was himself in the hospital for wounds he sustained in the gun battle.

Pinkett “called my grandmother and told her to stay in the house. He said, ‘You keep everyone in the house,’” Shields says. “He was scared. He didn’t even commit the crime.”

Shields says her grandfather didn’t talk about the lynching. No one of his generation did.

“I think things like that, we should let pass. Evil things, I don’t think you should burn ‘em up and keep that stirred,” says Mary Pinkett of Salisbury, 93, a niece of James Stanley Pinkett.

That silence was even more rigidly maintained by White witnesses.

“I think the silence was the most disturbing part of the research,” says Ifill. “Fear of talking about these events continues even 75 years after.”

The Williams and Armwood lynchings followed a typical pattern. Few White witnesses claimed to know who was in the mob. No one was ever convicted of the hangings. Even the local newspapers claimed that the guilty were unknown characters from out of town.

And after the lynchings, White people seemingly forgot all about them, or claimed not to know what happened.

“One of the things I wanted to debunk in this book was that these were backwoods events, out of public view. They were not. They were witnessed by hundreds and sometimes thousands of people,” Ifill says.

The public lynchings stymied race relations, even among those who chose not to talk about them. Ifill recounts the story of one White Eastern Shore man who played as a child with a Black boy — until the lynchings, after which the Black child said his mother told him not to talk to White people.

Today, many White Eastern Shore residents don’t talk at all about the lynchings. And racial violence is not included in the history curriculum in public schools. No historical markers note the lynchings at the former Wicomico Hotel or the Somerset courthouse.

In Princess Anne County, where Armwood was lynched for allegedly assaulting a White woman, Blacks and Whites differ in how much they talk about the issue. Kathryn Barrett-Gaines, a history professor at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, a historically Black school in Princess Anne, says students learn that Armwood was the last person lynched in Maryland.

She says there’s a distinct difference between the dialogue among students at the majority-Black school and residents in the majority-White town.

“A lot of people talk about this at UMES, but are they talking about it in Princess Anne?” she asks, noting that while race relations are much improved locally, hostility between the school and town remained until recent decades.

Using the lessons of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Ifill writes that Blacks and Whites on the shore need to spend time talking about racial violence and injustice. Otherwise, she argues, modern debates about affirmative action or other racially charged topics don’t hit at underlying sources of anger and mistrust.

“People are really interested in knowing what happened,” even if their parents or grandparents never talked about the Jim Crow era, says Ifill. “I think people are really hungry to lift the veil of silence.”

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