Michele Gregory says the city of Salisbury should have long ago atoned for the lynching of three Black men between 1898 and 1931.
For the better part of the year, she has helped lead a City Council effort to write an apology to the descendants of those men. The local NAACP had been pushing for this for years, and the issue came to the forefront after government offices recently moved into a former firehouse linked to one of the lynchings in the Eastern Shore town.
“Most people don’t get it unless they live here. We are the land of Harriet Tubman, but at times we are like the land that time forgot. I want to make sure we are marching into the future and not going back into the past,” Gregory said.
It is one of many efforts around the state to confront the reality that more than 6,500 Black Americans were lynched in the United States between 1865 and 1950. At least 38 were lynched in Maryland.
“We are moving towards a clearer understanding of how the history of racial terror in Maryland continues to influence our lives,” said Will Schwarz, president of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “That terror was fueled by white supremacy, which still functions in ways that might not seem as obvious but are no less effective. Health and income disparities, racially motivated violence, voter suppression, the weakening of the social safety net ... are all expressions of white supremacy.”
The Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created by law in 2019 to investigate racial terror lynchings in the state, hold public hearings in communities where the murders took place, and make recommendations to the governor about how the legacy of lynching should be addressed.
The commission is seeking to investigate the lynchings, which usually went unsolved and unprosecuted, but has “faced some obstacles related to funding and capacity,” said Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, the primary sponsor of the bill that led to its creation. The commission has sought additional funding through the Emmett Till Cold Case Investigation Grant Program of the U.S. Department of Justice, she added.
Peña-Melnyk said its important to keep The Commission viable and relevant because she believes “there is a direct connection between the horrors committed in this state in the past and where we are today.”
“Moving forward requires us to take a real look at our past, acknowledge what has happened and how our communities continue to be impacted by past atrocities. We are beginning this healing process in Maryland by confronting racial terror,” she said.
Confronting the past
Gregory anticipates that the Salisbury City Council apology will come within the next two months.
The firehouse was tied to the 1931 lynching of Matthew Williams when its then-fire chief, Frederick Grier Jr., provided the rope that was used to drag and hang Williams. Williams was accused of killing his employer without any investigation. A few days after Williams’ murder, a second Black man was so badly attacked and burned that his body has never been identified. It is also believed that a mob lynched him. A third man, Garfield King, was lynched by a mob in 1898 after being accused of shooting a white man.
“Because of city officials’ involvement, there has been a push to make an apology on the side of the city. … It’s absolutely ridiculous we have not done that yet,” Gregory said.
The council is currently working to craft the proper wording for the apology with the help of The Wicomico County NAACP Branch, a longtime advocate for an apology.
Salisbury City Council member Megan Outten also said the apology is overdue.
”In order for us to move forward as a community, we need to acknowledge our city’s history, and this is an opportunity to really reclaim this space — in the name of progress — and move forward,” said the 30-year-old, who was appointed to the council in February.
Although she has received some opposition, Outten said many more people support the effort. The reasons for opposition vary from criticism of the involvement of the NAACP to people who are generally against teaching the country’s more sordid history, she said, preferring to leave it in the past.
“I’m absolutely disheartened to see this pushback,” Outten said. “We deserve to be frank and candid about our nation’s history. I don’t think that we are doing any of our people justice by acting as if we are not tied to this history.”
Some say preserving and talking about lynchings has become more important in 2023, as efforts by conservative groups to revise history to soften the racism of the past grow.
At the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, early efforts are underway to erect the first ever statewide lynching memorial and an accompanying exhibit.
U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen last year announced a $650,000 federal investment to curate the state’s first exhibition addressing Maryland’s history of lynching at the museum, which is expected to be completed by fall of 2024. That exhibit will “chronicle the use of lynching as a tactic of intimidation,” according to a museum press release.
Many people “up South” believe the practice of lynching occurred only in the Confederate South and states with Jim Crow laws, said Terri Lee Freeman, president of the Reginald F. Lewis museum. She called that a “fallacy,” noting the Maryland lynchings.
“What makes these crimes so egregious is that this violence was extrajudicial — it occurred outside the formal systems of justice,” she said. “But what we know about those crimes is that rarely was justice on the side of Black people. In fact, often victims were taken from jails to be lynched.”
The Reparations Factor
The history of lynchings are also increasingly linked to discussions about reparations.
Peña-Melnyk said the two issues both deal with addressing the historic and ongoing harms of slavery, segregation and systemic racism.
In July, the Caucus of African American Leaders, an independent community group, voted unanimously to present a reparations resolution to Maryland officials, seeking ways to address the damages of slavery. The resolution was presented to Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley and then to Gov. Wes Moore and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman in August. The hope is to get legislation introduced into the General Assembly.
Carl Snowden, head of the caucus and a longtime crusader for civil rights who also sits on the state lynching commission, said reparations linked to lynching might come in the form of offering college scholarships within the University of Maryland system to the descendants of lynching victims or revamping school curriculum to better reflect lynchings in the state.
The eventual goal is to erect a memorial in every county in the state where a lynching occurred, according to Snowden.
In Salisbury, Gregory stressed the urgency of making sure the apology is completed before election season — every member of the City Council is up for reelection this November, she said.
“I am concerned that if we get past the election, and we are not on the council, I don’t think it might happen at all,” she said. “We’re so close to getting it done.”