81 years after hanging, group pushes pardon

Black man's execution still haunts Annapolitans who say he was innocent

June 11, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

"I have been imprisoned one year and six months and now am about to shake hands with time and welcome eternity, for in a few hours from now, I shall step out of time into eternity to pay the penalty of a crime I am not guilty of." - From the last statement of John Snowden.

Carl Snowden said that growing up in Annapolis, he often heard the story of the 1919 hanging of John Snowden, an event that shook the capital's African-American community and whose story was handed down from generation to generation.

"A lot of people didn't have the story exactly right, but everybody knew that an innocent man was executed," said Snowden, a longtime Annapolis activist who is not related to John Snowden.

Yesterday, Carl Snowden led a ceremony to dedicate a memorial above the previously unmarked grave of John Snowden, on the edge of Brewer's Hill Cemetery. It is the latest in a series of efforts, dating back a decade, seeking a posthumous pardon for John Snowden.

"It is important that we not look at history through rose-colored glasses," said Leroy Phillips Jr., the keynote speaker at the ceremony, of the value of such actions so many years later.

Phillips is co-author of "Contempt of Court," a celebrated book about a 1906 lynching in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., that helped lead to a reversal of the rape conviction of the victim.

"The truth is that in the first half of this century and last century, African-Americans were not granted justice in this country," Phillips said. "They were tried by all-white juries. They were not given basic protections like the presumption of innocence, particularly if the victim was white.

"The truth is that we owe an apology to the African-American community in this nation," he said.

Phillips told the crowd that if Gov. Parris N. Glendening could not be certain enough of the evidence to allow the execution of Eugene Colvin-el, whose sentence was commuted last week, then it is certain there is not enough evidence to ever have convicted Snowden.

He spoke to about 100 people who sought shade from the searing heat beneath two trees that tower over the middle of what was once called the Brewer's Hill Cemetery for Colored People of Anne Arundel County. The trees were perhaps saplings when Snowden's body was brought from his funeral at Mount Moriah A.M.E. Church.

The new marker above his grave displays a condensed version of Snowden's last statement: "I have been telling the truth ever since I was first arrested, but they have tried to make me a liar. But God knows that I am telling the truth and after I have been hanged, I am asking the authorities to continue to search for the murderer."

On Aug. 8, 1917, a white woman named Lottie Mae Brandon, a 20-year-old newlywed, was found murdered in her bed. Six days later, the 26-year-old Snowden was arrested and charged with the crime. He lived nearby and drove a supply wagon for an ice company.

His subsequent conviction was controversial, and authorities feared trouble as his execution day of Feb. 28, 1919, approached. Janice Hayes-Williams, the historian for the group seeking Snowden's exoneration, described to those gathered yesterday the tense atmosphere in Annapolis the day before the hanging.

The state militia patrolled the black areas of town. A machine gun detachment set up weapons around the execution site. The Sun reported that 50 Baltimore policemen left from Camden Station the night before the hanging to reinforce their counterparts in Annapolis.

But there was no trouble. "The attitude of the better element among the colored people in Annapolis seems to have calmed the feelings of those, including some white people, who were disposed to be wrought up," The Sun reported.

Carl Snowden first sent a request for a pardon to Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1989. It was referred to the parole board, but a recommendation was never issued.

A variety of letters were sent to Glendening this year once again seeking the pardon. When yesterday's ceremony was scheduled, there was hope it would be to celebrate that pardon, but Glendening has yet to act.

"I am optimistic," Snowden said. "No governor in the history of the state has shown the kind of sensitivity to the issue of race as the current one has."

Emerson Harrington, the governor in 1919, was unmoved by similar pleas for mercy. "There is no doubt in his mind that Snowden had committed the crime and fully deserved his fate," The Sun reported of Harrington's feelings.

Carl Snowden said that though it would do nothing to help John Snowden, a pardon would be important to those alive today.

"It would show that even when the truth is crushed, eventually it will rise again," he said.

Nearby, the statement on the plaque concludes: "I am leaving on the everlasting arm of Jesus. I could not leave with a lie in my mouth."

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