As president of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, Will Schwarz has the task of addressing the atrocities of racial terror killings of the past while helping to ensure that these crimes are not repeated in the future.
What complicates things is doing this work on the heels of this country’s racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police and amid a conservative pushback to limit and erase aspects of Black history that show white people in a negative light. This country’s history of lynching Black people — more than 6,500 were killed nationwide, including at least 38 in Maryland — is no exception.
“As a white man, I recognize, of course, that my lived and inherited experience of the world is different than a Black person’s. That should be obvious,” said the 73-year-old Towson resident. “It doesn’t mean, however, that white people shouldn’t be involved in the work of truth and reconciliation. I would argue quite the opposite. We have an obligation to be. The myth of white supremacy, which fueled racial terror for centuries, is an invention of white people. The racial reckoning that we are working towards requires all of us, and everyone can do something.”
Schwarz’s organization will host its sixth annual “Lynching in Maryland” conference Saturday Oct. 14 at Goucher College. About 200 people are expected to attend in person, with an additional 100 virtual attendees.
The conference will feature presentations, panel discussions and films that address the history of racial terror lynchings in Maryland. In addition to highlighting the county-level work being done on this front, the conference will feature a talk by Clint Smith, author of the book, “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America,” which was a New York Times bestseller; Dreisen Heath, whose work with Human Rights Watch focuses on domestic research as well as her advocacy on reparations and reparative justice; and Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, who was the primary sponsor of House Bill 307, which was passed in 2019 and created the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission (MLTRC).
“This year, we are trying to elevate the work of the county coalitions and will have brief presentations from several of them. Each is unique and the presentations will give them all the opportunity of comparing best practices and learning from each other. Hopefully, it will also inspire attendees to join one of the coalitions and get involved in their work,” Schwarz said.
In advance of the sixth annual “Lynching in Maryland” conference, The Baltimore Banner asked Schwarz about his work and efforts to confront the legacy of lynching. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into this type of work?
Honestly, it was kind of an accident. About eight years ago, a book club friend mentioned that there was a hotshot civil rights lawyer on a book tour who was going to be speaking at the Pratt. The lawyer was Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and he was on the book tour for “Just Mercy.” I read it and thought it was life-altering, even for someone in his 60s, which I was at the time.
I went to see him and in the course of his talk, Bryan mentioned that EJI had just finished the first iteration of its report, “Lynching in America.” It had documented more than 4,500 racial terror lynchings in the U.S. between the end of Reconstruction and the end of World War II. (Subsequent research has increased that estimate to more than 6,500 between Reconstruction and the end of World War II.) It was horrifying and a revelation. I had no sense of the history of racial terror lynching. It was just not something that was even mentioned when I was in high school. I was stunned not only by the scale of the killing, but by the depravity of these murders. They were sadistic and grotesque, unimaginably cruel.
The first EJI report that Bryan discussed that evening focused on the 11 Confederate states and Kentucky. Those 12 states represented the lion’s share of the lynchings that EJI was able to document. I assumed someone in Maryland was doing similar work and, as a filmmaker, tried to find whoever might be studying this history as I thought it would be a compelling subject for a film project.
It speaks mostly to my failure as a researcher that I was unable to find anyone. I mentioned this to another book club friend who was teaching high school history at the time and he thought it would be an interesting extracurricular project for his students. So I started going in to meet with students once a week and arranged video interviews for the class with people who were involved in this work from all over the country.
We did additional interviews with lawyers from EJI, the head archivist at Tuskegee University, and local lawmakers and historians as well. By the end of the semester, I realized this was a project I could just not walk away from.
Shortly afterwards, I worked with EJI and another Baltimore County resident to hold a soil collection in Towson at the site of the 1885 lynching of Howard Cooper, a 15-year-old child.
I incorporated the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project just a few weeks after that ceremony. Then, in the fall, we held our first conference on “Lynching in Maryland” at the Lewis Museum which, really, I think, galvanized public interest in this dark history and also in our organization.
How big is the staff of the memorial project?
We are an all-volunteer organization with a seven-member board of directors. We do not have a paid staff. We do employ several part-time computer/library science contractors who are building a digital archive of public documents and resources related to Maryland’s lynching history. This project is being funded by a Miller History Grant from the Maryland Center for History and Culture. We also employ another part-time contractor as a community engagement manager doing social media and such.
How did the killing of George Floyd and other incidents of police brutality affect your work and the attitudes of people willing to assist your work?
I think the George Floyd murder had a profound effect for us and for the nation in general. One of the points we try to stress is that the white supremacy that fueled the history of racial terror in this country has never gone away and still maintains a grip on our lives. It’s not hard to connect the dots. The George Floyd incident made that painfully clear for all to see. I wrote at the time that it felt like a tectonic shift, similar to the September 11 attacks in the way it fundamentally altered our understanding of the world.
What is the process like investigating racial terror crimes that occurred decades ago?
It’s chilling, to be sure, but also instructive to visit and read contemporaneous accounts of these crimes in newspapers and other sources. It’s remarkable, if not surprising, to note how blatant and overtly racist many of these accounts are. The research I do, however, can’t really be considered crime investigation. I don’t pretend to be even remotely qualified to do that.
What is the goal of solving these crimes?
The 38 racial terror lynchings that have been documented in Maryland are essentially 38 unsolved murders. Even though the last known lynching in Maryland happened 90 years ago, the victims still deserve accountability, and so do their families and neighbors and their descendants and the communities that continue to suffer the effects of white supremacy.
In truth, solving the crimes at this point is probably not as important as remembering them.
What is the projected timeframe to solve these crimes?
I don’t expect they will ever be solved, but I hope we will never stop looking.
How many people are working on these efforts?
After the response to our first conference in 2018, we set about helping to create coalitions in the 17 counties where we know that lynchings occurred. There are now working coalitions in 14 of them. Most of the research that is taking place that I know of is being done by members of these local coalitions. Additional work is being done by the MLTRC and by academics. I couldn’t hazard a guess as to how many people are involved.
Why did you choose Dreisen Heath, state Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, and Clint Smith to speak at the conference?
The word “reparations” was deliberately omitted from HB 307 when it created the MLTRC in 2019. However, the Commission has a lot of latitude in what it can recommend to the governor, which is one of its mandates. Dreisen Heath is in the forefront of the reparations justice movement and will be able to provide a global view of the subject and explain what options might be available to the commission if it chooses to recommend reparations. The topic is controversial, but it is an option that is increasingly gaining traction all over the country.
Del. Peña-Melnyk is a champion not only of racial justice but for public health, consumer protection, women’s rights and more. Her own story is inspirational, and she is a paragon of decency. It can be argued that the MLTRC would not exist today but for her persistence and tenacity. She is a true friend to all of us doing the work of truth and reconciliation.
Clint Smith is a brilliant and beautiful writer. His No. 1 New York Times bestseller, “How the Word is Passed,” is a revelation helping us understand the enduring, visible legacy of slavery, how it is represented and how it continues to shape the way we understand the world. His powerful 2022 essay in The Atlantic, “Now We Know Their Names,” focused international attention on Maryland’s efforts to confront its lynching history.