A Maryland commission set to examine the state’s dark history of racially motivated lynchings met for the first time Monday to begin the work of suggesting how the state should document and honor the lives of those victimized by systemic racism.
At least 40 African Americans are believed to have been killed by lynch mobs in the state between 1854 and 1933, Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel) said Monday. She was the chief sponsor of House Bill 307, which was passed unanimously by the General Assembly this year to create the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
No person was ever tried, convicted or brought to justice for racially motivated lynchings – and state, county, and local governments colluded and conspired to conceal the identities of the parties involved, according to the bill’s preamble.
Peña-Melnyk told the commissioners their work was important in light of hate crimes and racist rhetoric that continue today.
“When you think about what’s going on today, it’s really sad. Because we have not learned from our history,” Peña-Melnyk said.
The focus of the commission is restorative justice through truth-finding and reconciliation.
“This reckoning with history is long overdue,” said Will Schwarz, president of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project.
Schwarz testified in favor of the legislation earlier this year in Annapolis. The Lynching Memorial Project has been working with the Equal Justice Initiative to recognize victims of lynching in Maryland, including by collecting soil samples at the sites of killings to be placed at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.
Thousands of Marylanders were alive when the last known lynching took place in the state. On Oct. 19, 1933, George Armwood, a mentally-ill 23-year-old black man, was killed by a mob in Somerset County.
The commission has the power to subpoena witnesses and will hold public hearings throughout the state near sites of documented lynchings. The commission will also research cases of racially motivated lynchings that are not documented but are brought to the group’s attention.
The panel is expected to file a final report in December 2021.
At an organizational meeting in Annapolis, the commission decided to seek applications for four additional public members.
The commission will meet next on Sept. 12 at the University of Baltimore School of Law, which is holding a public event with the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project featuring presentations from Sherrilyn Ifill and others.
Ifill, a civil rights lawyer, is president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the author of “On the Courthouse Lawn,” which examined the lingering effects of racial lynchings in America, including in Maryland.