Shore starting to face up to past, some say

7 lynchings, reaction drove area into shell

February 25, 2007|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

Within living memory, Matthew Williams and George Armwood dangled on ropes for the world to see: The last of 25 to 30 victims of lynchings believed to have taken place in Maryland. Throughout the United States, about 5,000 lynchings have been documented between 1890 and 1960.

The number of people convicted of those crimes? None.

On the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1931, a white lumberyard owner was shot dead in his Salisbury office. Matthew Williams - a young employee in good standing - subsequently was admitted to nearby Peninsula Hospital with a superficial gunshot wound to the head.

Rumors immediately began swirling around Wicomico County that Williams had killed his boss. (A minor-key, alternative theory was that the man's own son had committed the murder during a heated family argument, then turned his gun on Williams, a hapless observer.) That night a mob descended upon the hospital and dragged a bandaged Williams from his bed. He was beaten and stabbed repeatedly with an ice pick, then hanged from a tree on the courthouse square in Salisbury. For good measure, his corpse was doused with gasoline and torched.

Between 500 and 1,000 onlookers attended all or part of the grim proceedings.

The lynching of George Armwood became a larger spectator sport.

There's no question the 28-year-old farm worker assaulted an elderly Princess Anne woman on Oct. 17, 1933, during a botched purse-snatching. Some contend he may have been acting in consort with a white man. Regardless, Armwood was quickly arrested and taken to Somerset County jail. That night, he was transferred to Baltimore for safekeeping, but in a matter of hours was returned home at the request of Eastern Shore officials.

The next evening, Oct. 18, vigilantes split from a mob some 2,000 strong, broke down the door of the county jail, knocked Armwood senseless, cut off his ear, hanged him, dragged the body through town and finally tossed it onto a bonfire.

Pieces of the ropes used in the Williams and Armwood lynchings reportedly were taken home as souvenirs.

The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper did the most aggressive reporting on the lynchings. The Eastern Shore papers largely took a pass. (The Salisbury Times downgraded the Armwood murder to "a demonstration.") The Baltimore Sun spoke out forcefully, condemning the lynchings on its editorial pages, but the most impassioned response came from H.L. Mencken, the newspaper's marquee columnist.

Mencken fired a series of attacks on the Eastern Shore culture he said set the stage for the barbarous incidents. He described the region as morally adrift, "sliding out of Maryland and into the orbit of Arkansas and Tennessee, Mississippi and the more flea-bitten half of Virginia."

Mencken testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1935, lending support to an anti-lynching bill that never made it into law. By then, Maryland had thrown up its hands.

In November 1933, Gov. Albert C. Ritchie, frustrated with the inertia of local police and prosecutors, sent Pinkerton detectives and the state militia to Salisbury to pursue the lynchers. Four leaders of the Armwood mob actually were taken into custody. Grand juries were convened in both cases. A combined total of 142 witnesses was called.

In the end, no one could or would identify a single lyncher. The two grand juries ultimately decided that George Armwood and Matthew Williams died "at the hands of persons unknown."

In all, an unlucky seven of Maryland's lynchings happened on the Eastern Shore; four in Somerset County. One ripple effect of the subsequent negative publicity was that Shore residents became hypersensitive to outside criticism (witness the backlash boycotts of The Sun and attacks on Sun delivery drivers). That insular, batten-down-the-hatches mentality lasted well into the 1960s.

Remedial steps have since been taken. In 2004 Wicomico County was awarded a three-year, $800,000 federal grant to help revamp its local-history curriculum. Forty-two junior and senior high school teachers attended workshops that delved into previously ignored topics like lynching.

"It seems to me the Eastern Shore is starting to come to terms" with its past, says Dean Kotlowski, an associate professor of history at Salisbury University who conducted some of the workshops, "but just coming to terms."

There is no consensus about what else needs to be done. Clara Small, the university's only African-American history professor, teaches a course in racism and discrimination, in which students are strongly encouraged to speak from the heart: "If they can't do it, I tell them `Maybe you better be in another class.' "

To no surprise, Small favors a thorough public airing of dirty laundry. "If you don't talk about what happened in the past, you can't move forward," she says. "As a historian, I look at the past as a window to the future."

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