Reckoning With Lynching in Liberal America

Under a large white tent on a warm Sunday in early autumn, a group of residents in Montgomery County, Maryland, gathered at Welsh Park in the town of Rockville. A crescendo of gospel hymns hung above the crowd before falling gently over us like a warm bedsheet. A small group of children squealed from a playground in the distance. We were there to remember the lives of two Black men who had been lynched in the county more than a century ago. This is the county where I live. Before this event I did not know these men’s names, but now I do.

Estimates vary widely, but according to the Equal Justice Initiative, from 1865 to 1950 nearly 6,500 Black Americans were lynched in the United States. Two of those men were Sidney Randolph and John Diggs-Dorsey.

Two local students shared the stories of Randolph’s and Diggs-Dorsey’s murders. The audience listened attentively.

On May 25, 1896, Randolph was walking down the road between Gaithersburg and Hunting Hill when two white men, cousins Frank Ward and John Garrett, pulled up next to him and started asking questions about where he was going and what he had been doing. Randolph wasn’t originally from the area—he said that he had been born and raised in Georgia—but he knew that two white men approaching you on horseback, unsolicited, was a recipe for trouble. An itinerant worker who had slept in a barn the night before, Randolph thought the men were attempting to arrest him for trespassing or vagrancy. So Randolph ran, and the two cousins followed. “They looked so mad they scared me,” Randolph said, according to The Baltimore Sun, “and I tried to get away and they shot me and rode their horses over me.” Randolph was struck in the hand, and the two men tied him up at gunpoint and brought him to the county jail.

The two men were part of a group of vigilantes who had been looking for a man who had assaulted a white family, the Buxtons, with the back of an ax in Gaithersburg. A neighbor said he had seen a Black man flee the home, and white residents began scouring the area for the alleged assailant. Randolph and another man, George Neale, were arrested. Initially, Richard Buxton, the patriarch of the assailed family and the recently elected town commissioner, wasn’t sure that Randolph had committed the crime. But two weeks later, after Buxton’s 7-year-old daughter died from the wounds, Buxton changed his story and said that Randolph definitely was the person who’d assaulted his family and killed his daughter. Neale was cleared of all charges and released. Randolph was held. The sheriff, fearful that a mob might act before a grand-jury trial could begin, is said to have moved Randolph to a different location each night. But in the early morning of July 4, the mob found him.

[From the November 2017 issue: Hanged, burned, shot, drowned, beaten]

Two dozen or three dozen men, their faces hidden behind red handkerchiefs, overpowered the guards, pulled Randolph into the street, struck him in the head, and placed him in a wagon that took off down Darnestown Road. They came to a stop at a chestnut tree at the edge of a local farm and pulled Randolph out of the wagon. The mob wrapped a noose around the man’s neck, threw the rope over the tree, and hauled Randolph’s body off the ground. He stirred and struggled, then stopped. No one was charged with Randolph’s murder and his body was buried in an unmarked grave in the pauper’s cemetery of the local almshouse. Years later, the Montgomery County Detention Center would be built on part of the almshouse site.

George Neale and Sidney Randolph, Courtesy The Washington Times Evening Edition, Wednesday May 27, 1896.
George Neale and Sidney Randolph (Courtesy of The Evening Times / Library of Congress)

The circumstances of Diggs-Dorsey’s lynching 16 years prior were not dissimilar. He had been accused of sexually assaulting a white woman, though Diggs-Dorsey claimed that the encounter had been consensual. To the white public, that didn’t matter. Diggs-Dorsey was arrested; then a mob formed, overpowered the sheriff, took Diggs-Dorsey to the edge of town, wrapped a noose around his neck, and hanged him from a tree, as had been done to so many other Black men in the years following the Civil War. After Diggs-Dorsey’s body was taken down, pieces of the rope and parts of his clothing were distributed as souvenirs. He, too, was buried in the pauper’s cemetery.

After lynchings, across generations, souvenirs were brought home and shared with people who had not been able to attend the event itself, and they became heirlooms passed down to children that showed them the power their whiteness could wield. The historian David Roediger estimates that with these souvenirs, “several million early 20th century whites witnessed a lynching or touched its relics.”

One of the most unsettling yet ubiquitous aspects of lynchings across the country is that the people who committed these crimes, who took these artifacts home as souvenirs to share with their families, were rarely two-dimensional caricatures of evil; they were everyday people in the community: the grocer, the postman, the teacher, the doctor. “It is its nucleus of ordinary men that continually gives the mob its initial and awful impetus,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America. They are people whose children and grandchildren are still part of these same communities today, here in places like Montgomery County. Some of them know what their fathers and grandfathers did, but they do not speak of it.

After the students went back to their seats, those of us present were silent as we processed what we had just heard.

I was unnerved in ways I hadn’t expected to be. Part of why, I now realize, is because these stories, told in this place, recalibrated my own sense of my physical proximity to this history.

Picture taken at the lynching of William Andrews on June 9, 1897 in Princess Anne, MD. Photograph via Nabb Research Center
The crowd at the lynching of William Andrews, on June 9, 1897, in Princess Anne, Maryland. (Nabb Research Center, Salisbury University)

I am a Black American who is the descendant of enslaved people and who was born and raised in Louisiana. My grandfather once shared a story with me of how when he was 12 years old, someone in his small town of just 1,000 people had been lynched and castrated. I watched the way the veins in his temple rose as he recalled that event of 80 years prior. His memory was clear; his voice was certain.

[From the March 2021 issue: Stories of slavery, from those who survived it]

This history is never distant; it follows us everywhere we go. It lives under the soil of the playgrounds where we bring our children to play, under the concrete we drive on in our neighborhoods, and under the land upon which we live. It rests beneath our feet in ways that we are—that I am—still discovering. This is not true just of the Deep South; it is true of places across the country that pride themselves on tolerance and multiculturalism.

Montgomery County, Maryland, is such a place. “We walked this morning past where my great-great-grandfather was enslaved,” Jason Green, the chair of the Montgomery County Commission on Remembrance and Reconciliation, said that day at the event. “But slavery didn’t exist here. Not in this part of Maryland. Not precious Montgomery County. These are the stories we tell ourselves, that we tell each other.” Murmurs of affirmation swept through the crowd.

But that’s not the real history, and, as Green put it, “telling the story accurately matters.” According to researchers at the Maryland State Archives, the Equal Justice Initiative, and Bowie State University, at least 44 people were lynched in Maryland from 1854 to 1933. The Baltimore Sun has compiled a chronological list of these lynchings, along with short descriptions, and as I read through them I was struck by the consistency of the stories. Almost all of these lynchings involved the murder of a Black man by a group of white people. Many of these men were denied due process. All of the murderers avoided charges. According to Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, there is no record of any white person ever being convicted of lynching a Black person in the United States until 1999.

I was also struck, scrolling through the list, by how young many of the victims were, and one victim in particular.

In 1885, Howard Cooper was accused of assaulting a prominent local farmer’s daughter as she walked home. An all-white jury, which did not even leave the courtroom to deliberate, took less than a minute to find him guilty. He was sentenced to death. Local Black activists in Baltimore raised money for a federal appeal, but before they could proceed, a mob of more than 70 white men stormed the jail, where they found Cooper hiding under a mattress. They took him out of his cell, dragged him through the back door, and hanged him from a sycamore tree right outside the jailhouse. The next morning, as a train was passing by the site of the lynching, the conductor slowed the train down so that passengers could look more closely at the body as it hung there. His mother had to come the next day and collect her son’s body. Cooper was 15 years old.

Maryland has long been a state whose history of racist violence defies easy categorization.

At the start of the Civil War, Maryland was a slave state with more than 87,000 enslaved people, but, like the other border states where slavery existed—Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky—it never seceded from the Union. It is the state where both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were born, raised, and enslaved; Baltimore at the time was home to the largest population of free Black people in the entire country, North and South. The numbers vary widely, but by one estimate, approximately 80,000 Maryland men fought for the Union; about 20,000 fought for the Confederacy. At one point, one-third of Montgomery County’s population was enslaved. And slavery was not outlawed in Maryland until November 1864—nearly two years after the Emancipation Proclamation—following a ballot referendum, just a few months before the Thirteenth Amendment would abolish slavery nationally. The measure barely passed, with 30,174 voting in favor of freeing the slaves and 29,799 against: a difference of just 375 votes. Much of Maryland’s wealth came from the institution, and many were not ready to let that go.

“The day after emancipation thus found black men and women in the same ambiguous position as on the day before: between slavery and freedom, struggling to define a new free status for themselves,” wrote the late historian Ira Berlin, who was a professor at the University of Maryland. “But the struggle proceeded on new terms. Instead of grappling with freedom on the terrain of slavery, they now grappled with slavery on the terrain of freedom.”

And for so many formerly enslaved Black people in Maryland, as was the case across the country, the threat of lynching and racial terrorism would shape that terrain for another century. The public spectacle of violence—the way that 15-year-old Howard Cooper’s body hung for townspeople and passersby on the train to see—was meant to send a message about how white supremacy ruled that space. As Ifill writes, “More than the poll tax, the grandfather clause, and Jim Crow segregation, lynching and the threat of lynching helped regulate and restrict all aspects of black advancement, independence, and citizenship.”

Recently, however, Maryland has done more to confront its history of lynching than many other states.

Scene where Matthew William's body was burned in Salisbury, Maryland, December 5,1932.
A group of men stand around the site of Matthew Williams’s body, which was burned after he was lynched in Salisbury, Maryland, on December 4, 1931.

This image was modified for The Atlantic by the artist Ken Gonzales Day, whose technique, as showcased in his “Erased Lynchings” project, is to digitally remove the victim and rope from historical photographs of lynchings. By erasing the victims’ bodies, Gonzales-Day pushes the viewer to focus on the crowd, and, by proxy, the racism and bias that were foundational to these acts of violence. (Digital alteration by Ken Gonzales-Day for The Atlantic. Source: The Baltimore News-American / Hearst)

One person responsible for that is Will Schwarz, a white man in his 70s with white hair and tortoiseshell glasses who serves as the founder and president of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project.

Like many involved in the lynching-memorialization work in Maryland, Schwarz first learned about this history through Bryan Stevenson, the public-interest lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, in Montgomery, Alabama. “I had no idea,” Schwarz told me, shaking his head. “I don’t think I’m that atypical, but lynching wasn’t even something that was mentioned when we were in high school.”

Schwarz had been reading Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, and later went to see Stevenson speak at a local event. He felt like he was able to connect the dots between the past and the present in ways he had never been able to do before. He wanted to get involved in work that excavated the history of lynching and assumed that someone in Maryland was addressing the issue. Black communities had been memorializing this history in informal ways for generations, but Schwarz couldn’t find any formal organization doing so. So he started one, and it quickly grew. “People realized that no one was going to take us by the hand and walk us through the garden of racial reconciliation,” he said. “It was something that we had to do ourselves.”

The Maryland Lynching Memorial Project has partnered with local schools, churches, and community organizations to help bring these stories to the wider public. It has helped coordinate soil-collection ceremonies across the state—in which local communities gather soil from the locations where lynchings previously took place—and has placed plaques on several lynching sites, including in front of the former Baltimore County Jail, where Cooper was murdered.

[From the June 2021 issue: Why Confederate lies live on]

I asked Schwarz if he has any hesitancy about being a white person leading an organization focused on the history of racial-terror lynchings. He said that he is mindful of the relationship between his position and his identity as an older white man, and added that he collaborates with, and often defers to, Black community members. But he also rejects the idea that his whiteness means he shouldn’t be part of the work. “White people are the people that did this,” he said, “so it makes sense … that white people are involved in addressing it.”

The work that Schwarz has done has been part of a broader push to get Maryland to more directly confront its history of lynchings. A pivotal moment came in 2018, when Nicholas Creary, then a professor at Bowie State University and a founding member of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, reached out to Joseline Peña-Melnyk, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, with a proposal to create a commission to further research and account for the state’s history of racial terror. Peña-Melnyk was so compelled by Creary’s proposition that, in the middle of their first meeting, she called the legislature’s bill-drafting department and handed the phone to Creary so bill writing could begin right then and there. The following year, the Maryland legislature passed House Bill 307, and became the first and only state in the country to create such a commission. “A lot of the victims’ families in the community never received a formal apology,” Peña-Melnyk told me, “and this is a way to honor their lives.”

At the beginning of October 2021, the commission held a virtual public hearing on the lynching of an 18-year-old man named Robert Hughes in one of the state’s westernmost counties, Allegany. It was the first of what the commission expects to be at least a dozen hearings on lynchings throughout the state, and featured the testimony of two of Hughes’s descendants.

Recognition has come in other forms too—symbolic, yet significant. In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan pardoned 34 victims of racial-terror lynchings that took place in the state from 1854 to 1933. (Not all of the individuals who were lynched in Maryland were charged with a state crime, and therefore they were not eligible to receive a pardon.) He signed the order by the jail where Cooper was murdered. In no other state has a governor issued such a pardon.

Some in Maryland are also attempting to take the process of truth and reconciliation a step further, by interviewing not only the descendants of the lynching victims, but also the descendants of those in the lynch mobs. Charles L. Chavis Jr., a professor, the director of African and African American studies at George Mason University, and the author of The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State, has spent years combing through archives in order to identify people who participated in lynchings in Maryland. After identifying the participants, he traces their lineage and reaches out to their descendants. If they are willing, he sits down with them for interviews. “Some are aware through family lore, but others have no clue what’s going on,” he said. Chavis believes that Black people deserve the opportunity to testify about the racial-terror violence they witnessed, experienced, and carry as part of their family story. But he also believes that Black people shouldn’t be the only ones telling those stories, and that white descendants must confront what was done in their name. If your grandfather was part of a lynch mob that killed a man—or a child—Chavis believes that is something you should know.

Baltimore, MD - October 13: Soil from the location where 1885 lynching victim Howard Cooper was buried is displayed at the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project's inaugural conference at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, which covered the history of lynching in Maryland and reconciliation in Baltimore, Md., on October 13, 2018. Photograph by Cheryl Diaz Meyer
Soil from the burial site of Howard Cooper, an 1885 lynching victim, was displayed at the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project's inaugural conference, which took place at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 13, 2018. (Photograph by Cheryl Diaz Meyer / The Washington Post)

At the Montgomery County commemoration event, Jason Green stepped from the stage, and reflections were offered by Elliot Spillers. Spillers, who had flown in from Montgomery, Alabama, and was representing the Equal Justice Initiative at the event, finished his speech by reciting—rather than singing—the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900, before it was put to music and transformed into an anthem. I meditated on the lines at the beginning of the final stanza:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Something about hearing the words for themselves, without the melody that has long accompanied them, gave me a different, more intimate, sense of their meaning. As Spillers recited the poem, everyone under the tent stood and let the words wash over them, many shutting their eyes as if listening to a prayer.   

But the centerpiece of the event came next, behind the tent on a hill, where several mounds of dirt lay alongside one another.

“We invite you to help fill the jars of soil,” Lesley Younge, a middle-school teacher and a member of the Montgomery County Lynching Memorial Project steering committee, said to the crowd. “We have combined the soil collected here at Welsh Park with soil gathered near the sites where Mr. Diggs-Dorsey and Mr. Randolph were lynched and buried. One jar for each man will be held at [the Equal Justice Iniative’s] Legacy Museum, along with jars of soil from other counties where lynchings took place.”

I’ve spent the past several years thinking about, visiting, and observing processes of reconciliation, memorialization, and reckoning with this nation’s history of racial violence. I have seen memorials, monuments, and observances across the country, and have grown accustomed to these sorts of proceedings. Yet this event moved me more than I could have anticipated. Here I was, in a park not so far from my own home, surrounded by a solemn procession of my neighbors—people I saw shopping at the grocery store, cheering at children’s soccer games, riding their bikes down the same roads I do. They bent down over patches of excavated soil, lifted the dirt with small shovels, and poured it into glass jars carrying the names of those whose lives had been taken by perhaps the most violent manifestation of white supremacy.

Sometimes, in these moments, at events like this one, I am not sure whether I want to simply observe what’s happening around me or whether I should more directly participate in the proceedings. But on this day, I felt my body being drawn to the soil, so I listened to it. I got in line.

When my turn arrived, I made my way to the first mound of dirt and bent down on one knee. I felt the cool earth dampen my pants. I turned my head and looked at the white sheet of paper next to the dirt, and saw John Diggs-Dorsey’s name written on it, attached to two thin wooden sticks that lifted his name just slightly off the ground. I picked up the shovel and dug into the soil. I brought the shovel to the jar and let the soil fall in. A choir was singing a melody both comforting and haunting, its refrain evaporating into the air.

In that moment, I felt in my body one of the primary intentions behind this gathering. Decades ago, crowds had formed to watch the bodies of Black men dangle from trees and lampposts. Now a crowd had gathered on that same land to condemn what had been done.

I had not expected that placing a small shovelful of soil in a jar would transform the emotional tenor of the event. But I was wrong. Doing so made me feel closer to the stories that had been shared about these young men, and closer to this history.

“In this soil there is the sweat of the enslaved. In the soil there is the blood of victims of racial violence and lynching,” Bryan Stevenson has said about the importance of soil-collection ceremonies. “There are tears in the soil from all those who labored under the indignation and humiliation of segregation. But in soil there is also opportunity for new life, a chance to grow something hopeful and healing for the future.”

I went over to Beth Baker, a white woman with silver-white hair who is a local freelance writer and a member of the steering committee that helped organize the event. Around us, neighbors hugged one another; some held hands. Baker told me that not everyone had been on board when they first began putting ideas for the soil-collection ceremonies together. Some white community members had been skeptical of the first soil-collection event, and a few Black community members thought that this history might be too painful to revisit. A couple of days days after the Rockville event, however, she shared an email with me from one of the day’s volunteers, an older Black woman and member of the memorial project who had initially expressed hesitation: “The occasion was a powerful reminder that throughout the world; every country, human, does not always come with a ‘good history.’ It was a solemn, peaceful, introspective day.”

This sense of solemnity was shared by Lesley Younge, who had opened the event by invoking the names of the men. As a teacher, Younge, who had black locs that fell to her shoulders, is aware of the implications this history has for her students. “They’re bringing up their own stories of racial injustice that they’re experiencing at 11 and 12 years old, and it’s all completely connected. And so just knowing my students’ stories makes this work feel really important,” she told me. Younge said that teaching her students this part of the region’s history is important because it allows them to ground themselves and their communities in an understanding of the policies, systems, and circumstances that gave rise to them. It also allows them to engage with the lives of people from previous generations.

Younge nodded to the tree whose branches hung over us. “You always have to get at the root, right? If you want to dig up a tree, you got to get the roots or it just grows back.”

To mark the end of the event, several students picked up the jars that had been filled with soil, and walked in a quiet procession past those whose hands had filled them.

A local pastor, Reverend Alyce Walker Johnson of the Clinton AME Zion Church, stepped barefoot into the center of a circle of people that had formed. “Somebody said, ‘Pastor, where are your shoes?’” She paused and looked at the people around her. “I’m on sacred ground.”

Walker Johnson invoked the names of Randolph and Diggs-Dorsey once more, and the crowd repeated their names after her.

A few days later, I drove to the Montgomery County Detention Center, which was built years ago over the almshouse near Randolph’s and Diggs-Dorsey’s graves. The colors of the foliage were beginning to change, and trees around the facility were ornamented in orange-yellow leaves.

I sat on a bench outside the facility and looked at the barbed-wire fencing that encircled several plain beige buildings. I reached down and dug my fingers into the earth and lifted it from the ground. The dirt was thin and dry and began falling between my fingers as quickly as I had lifted it up.

I looked around and tried to imagine where the bodies of Randolph and Diggs-Dorsey might lie, how far beneath the concrete of the parking lot or the foundation of the buildings their bodies might be buried. I looked down under my feet, where pine needles formed a thin blanket of brown, and considered the possibility that one of them might be buried beneath me.

Charles L. Chavis, the author of The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State, contributed research for the artwork in this article.