A New Commission Confronts the Nation's Painful History of Lynching

The nation’s history of lynching, extrajudicial murders of African Americans from 1865 up to 1960 and beyond, mark a dark chapter in American history. From 1882–1968, an estimated 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. However, there is no proof that every lynching that occurred was recorded. Much like slavery, which has been viewed as the nation’s “original sin,” lynching is viewed as another dark stain on the nation’s tortured racial past.

Determined to confront the past on its own terms, the state of Maryland has recently constructed a lynching commission. The Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the nation’s first state-level commission to investigate lynchings. The commission was established by a bill that passed both the Maryland House and Senate, according to The Baltimore Sun.

The summary of House Bill 307 is as follows: “Establishing a Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission; authorizing the staff member provided by the Office of the Attorney General to issue certain subpoenas; requiring the Commission to hold certain public meetings in each county where a lynching of an African American by a white mob has been documented; authorizing the Commission to research cases of racially motivated lynching; requiring the Commission to submit an interim and final report to the Governor and the General Assembly on or before certain dates; etc.”

The bill’s preamble acknowledges the extralegal nature of lynching and the fact that persons were never “tried, convicted, or otherwise brought to justice” for these crimes.

Moreover, it states “no victim’s family or community ever received a formal apology or compensation from State, county, or local governments for the violent loss of their men … .” It concludes by noting the importance of restorative justice and the requirement for “full knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of the truth.” The bill’s primary sponsor was Delegate Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk.

The commission’s membership consists of historians from each of the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), a state archivist, and representatives from the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, and the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, according to The Baltimore Sun.

The commission is the brainchild of Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF).

Ifill is the author of an important book that promotes the establishment of commissions to address lynching, modeled on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which convened to address the injustices of the Apartheid Era (1948–1990) in South Africa. Ifill praised the commission’s establishment at a public meeting in September, saying it is “wonderful to see the needle move forward,” according to The Baltimore Sun.

It is believed that more than 40 people were lynched in Maryland during an 80-year period. All of the known victims were African American men. Lynchings took place in at least 18 of the 24 counties in the state. Comparatively speaking, the numbers in Maryland are small. The Equal Justice Institute documents that states in the Deep South such as Mississippi and Georgia had 654 and 589.

The journey leading to the creation of the commission was slow and steady. A database of lynchings in the state was compiled by researchers at the Maryland State Archives. This project was followed by the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. The project’s president, Will Schwarz, was inspired by the work of Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and author who established the Equal Justice Institute. These collective efforts served as the underpinnings for the passage of House Bill 307.

The commission’s work has only begun. They plan to conduct hearings in communities where lynchings occurred. This approach intends to make the implications of the past clear in the present. Currently, the commission has only conducted two public hearings and is still in the process of identifying its public members.

The commission is part of a larger nationwide groundswell to understand the history of lynching. Efforts to document this past have recently culminated in the construction of the National Memorial For Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It opened in April 2018 and is the first memorial dedicated to the “legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”

Lynchings were commonplace in America between 1865 and 1960. These events took place nationwide. They often featured hanging, mutilation, burning, and castration of male and female African American victims.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.