Breaking The Silence

A University of Maryland law professor writes a book on the last two recorded lynchings in the state - and the culture that let the crimes go unpunished

Q&a -- Sherrilyn Ifill


I originally thought I was going to write this encyclopedic book of lynching," says Sherrilyn Ifill, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore.

Instead, her research took a narrative turn as she focused on the tragic deaths of Matthew Williams and George Armwood, two black men murdered by white mobs on the Eastern Shore in the 1930s - the last two recorded lynchings in Maryland. Ifill wound up devoting five years to writing On the Courthouse Lawn ($25.95, Beacon Press).

Before teaching she had been an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, litigating civil rights cases in a number of Southern states. As Ifill recalls, in virtually every African-American community she worked, people "would always tell me about a lynching that happened." She subsequently moved to Maryland and got involved with an environmental justice case on the Eastern Shore. There she heard about Williams, Armwood and several other lynching victims. The seed for a book was planted.

Some 5,000 lynchings have been documented in the United States. Yet no one has ever been convicted of a lynching crime. Reverberations from that era of violence are still being felt in American society, Ifill contends. For that reason she is a proponent of racial-healing efforts modeled after the South African government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"There is unfinished business in communities throughout this country," she notes in the introduction to her book, "where the reality of lynching and racial pogroms has never been fully confronted." Is there a definition per se of lynching?

For me there are certain features that make a racial murder a lynching. Perhaps the most important is that those acting in concert to commit the murder are not seeking to hide it. The murder is a message crime. It means not only to kill the victim, but to also send a message to the victim's community. Certainly in the African-American community, it is regarded as a violent form of white supremacy. What are some prevailing myths?

Many of us who only envision lynching in our head think of something happening in the backwoods; you know, where a group of hillbillies string somebody up. The truth is that many lynchings, and certainly most in Maryland, were public events. They happened in the center of town. That's why the book is called On the Courthouse Lawn. Everybody knew about it. It wasn't a secret act. What did you learn during your research? I was struck by that reference to the lynching in Duluth, Minn.

Yeah, Duluth, Minn., and Utah. Like most people, I thought of lynching as a Southern phenomenon, not that I thought it never happened in the North. But seeing the geographic diversity of lynching was kind of interesting. What was your sense of the failure of grand juries to indict in these cases? An act of complicity? Or was there a lack of witnesses that made it impossible to reach any conclusions of what happened?

These were not masked lynchings. No one was hiding themselves, and these were very small communities. As I point out in the book, the posture was to close ranks. It's not possible to have over 5,000 cases in the U.S. of lynching - most of them lynchings of black men - and not have one conviction and attribute that to coincidence or to the push of the crowd and their inability to see. Did you meet anyone who had a father or grandfather they suspect was involved?

I never met anybody who said, "I knew who had the rope" or "I knew who set the fire." And if I did, I'd have taken that information to the state's attorney. Did it cross your mind that there are probably still people alive who witnessed the lynchings?

Yes. There is a section in the book about children and what I regard as the silence that is imposed on those children. Children are following what their parents tell them to do. But in the silence that followed they would be locked into that; maybe locked into a sense of guilt, maybe a sense of confusion, maybe a refusal to revisit those events. They are in a kind of bondage that they need to be released from. They saw their neighbors and loved ones standing by or cheering, complicit in acts they know to be wrong.

There are conversations that have to happen within white families, within white communities, within white churches; as well as within black communities and black churches about their response to lynchings. It's not just that we need to have these interracial conversations. We need to break all levels of the silence. Any heroes in this?

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