A painful history of racial terror lynchings in Somerset County

By Carrie Samis
Posted 2/15/22

Over 4,400 racial terror lynchings occurred across 20 states between 1877 and 1950.

In Maryland, 44 African Americans were lynched, that we know of. It is assumed that many were …

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A painful history of racial terror lynchings in Somerset County

Posted

Over 4,400 racial terror lynchings occurred across 20 states between 1877 and 1950.

In Maryland, 44 African Americans were lynched, that we know of. It is assumed that many were undocumented.

Documented lynchings occurred in 18 of Maryland’s 24 counties. In Somerset County there were four documented lynchings: Isaac Kemp, 1894; William Andrews, 1897; James Reed, 1907; and George Armwood, 1933.

Twenty documented unsuccessful attempts, or “near lynchings,” also occurred in Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties from 1868-1940.
A quick search of Salisbury University library archives, available online, shows Somerset County was a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan. An estimated 600-700 Somerset County residents were involved in the KKK. Klan propaganda was regularly published in local newspapers. Marion, Crisfield, Princess Anne, Deal Island along with surrounding towns in Wicomico, Worcester, and Dorchester counties hosted national KKK speakers, too.

Locally, KKK leaders officiated at funerals, community events, churches, youth groups and more. And while some may assume such activity is a thing of the past, even in the last two years, KKK propaganda has been distributed in some parts of the county, although who distributed the material is not clear.
Racial terror continues. Historically-Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the country receiving bomb threats during the first week of Black History Month. In her weekly message to the campus community, alumni, and friends of the university, Dr. Heidi Anderson, president of University of Maryland Eastern Shore, said, “my heart goes out to all of the faculty, staff, and students who have been affected by the recent rash of bomb threats at our sister institutions across the country. These are cowardly and evil acts.”

Legislation from 2019 creates Lynching Truth Commission

Efforts are underway nationally, at the state level, and locally, to help acknowledge and address aspects of systemic racism and the associated injustices that continue to haunt and impact our communities.

House Bill 307, establishing the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Larry Hogan in April 2019. Maryland is the first state in the nation to establish such a commission. As mandated by law, the Commission is composed of members representing a variety of government agencies, non-profits and academic institutions. Each of Maryland’s four HBCUs has representatives on the commission. Dr. Marshall Stevenson Jr., dean of the School of Education, Social Sciences and the Arts at UMES, was appointed to the commission, as was Dr. Kirkland Hall, local educator and community activist.

The commission is authorized to research cases of racially motivated lynchings and hold public meetings and regional hearings where a lynching of an African American by a white mob has been documented. The commission’s meetings and hearings are open to the public with the next meeting scheduled Feb. 14.

At the forefront of some of the statewide efforts is Will Schwarz, president of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. “Everyone in the state should be proud that Maryland is taking the lead in reckoning with its history of racial terror. Coalitions all over the state are organizing community remembrance projects to confront the truth about that history, which is a first and necessary step towards healing and reconciliation.

“Nowhere is that effort more important than in Somerset County where three of these murders took place, including the well-documented, horrific lynching of George Armwood in Princess Anne in 1933.

“This was also the last known lynching in Maryland,” said Schwarz.

Working in close partnership with the state commission, 13 counties have their own county-specific committees including Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Frederick, Harford, Kent, Montgomery, Prince George’s, St. Mary’s, Somerset, and Wicomico. Locally, the Somerset Lynching Memorial Project-Truth and Reconciliation Committee is co-chaired by Dr. Kirkland Hall and Carrie Samis. Shelley Johnson serves as secretary. Members include relatives of lynching victims, academics, and local community organizers and activists.

Shortly after the formation of the state commission and the local committee, activities were stalled, temporarily, by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, project planning, research, and education continued. Committee meetings and public hearings have been held virtually when meeting in person was not an option.

National effort has Delmarva native as its executive director

At the national level, a key partner in this work is the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), founded by Delmarva native Bryan Stevenson, born in Milton, Del. Stevenson, a lawyer and social justice activist, is the executive director of the nonprofit, national organization based in Montgomery, Alabama. He said, “We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during this era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it.”

Under the guidance of EJI, communities are participating in Community Remembrance Projects, including groups in Wicomico and Somerset County. Soil collection at sites associated with documented lynchings have been conducted in Salisbury, Princess Anne, and Crisfield. Some of the soil collected is now on display at The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, located in Montgomery. Jars of soil were also retained for exhibit locally.

Last year, the Wicomico Truth and Reconciliation Initiative partnered with EJI to install a historical marker in Salisbury to acknowledge Garfield King, Matthew Williams, and one unknown man. All three men were lynched by white mobs in Salisbury. Salisbury’s is the first such marker on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

New research makes its way to books, magazine article

In January, a new book was released documenting details of the lynching of Williams. Written by Charles Chavis, Ph.D., The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State, reveals details previously unpublished and explores the political and social dynamics in play at the time.

In early February, The Atlantic published “Now We Know Their Names,” by Clint Smith. The carefully researched piece discusses, in depth, some of the lynchings in Maryland, as well as efforts underway to acknowledge the past and heal communities. The images accompanying the piece are from the lynchings that occurred in Crisfield, Princess Anne, and Salisbury. Interestingly, when sharing historical images of lynchings, recent efforts have been made to shift focus from the victim to the perpetrators.

Even locally, lynchings were often an event — attracting hundreds, even thousands, of viewers, where photos were taken, souvenirs were sold.

Sometimes postcards were published, commemorating the spectacle — depicting victims and lynch mobs. Such events were intended not only to exact vigilante justice but also to intimidate other African American members of the community.

The matter of basic civil rights

Unfortunately, mistreatment of our Black neighbors did not end when people were no longer enslaved, nor did it end when public lynchings like that of

George Armwood became unacceptable. The Jim Crow era drew further lines of separation — segregating schools, businesses, and neighborhoods. Racial unrest continued through the 1970s, when some of the last schools integrated.

That, not surprisingly, is when many private schools were built by parents who did not want their children attending integrated schools.

In Somerset County, as elsewhere, the civil rights era saw people protesting in the streets of Crisfield and Princess Anne. It wasn’t that long ago when Black UMES students were hosed down by members of the Princess Anne Fire Company and beaten with billy clubs by police.

Some of the people — on both sides of those protests — are still living in our communities. Discussions about the events remain sometimes heated, sometimes hushed.

“Our country today is so racially polarized that it is critical to understand the relationships between the white community and the Black community. It is important to recognize and acknowledge the past. Just this week bomb threats at HBCUs across the country demonstrated that racial terror is still alive and well. We need a sit-down. We need to discuss this,” said Dr. Stevenson. “Soon, we’ll have that opportunity, here, in Princess Anne” he continued, in reference to an event slated for October.

Book discussion, essay contest, oral history planned

So, what’s next, here? In the coming months the Somerset Lynching Memorial Project-Truth and Reconciliation Committee will partner with the Somerset County Library to host a facilitated book discussion on All American Boys, written by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. The book, published in 2015, is a novel written, primarily, for a teenage audience and was selected by Maryland Humanities as the One Maryland One Book in 2016, to encourage community reading.

Recently, the book has been included in lists of books recommended to be banned in schools, here and across the country. The book, about two boys — one Black and one white — examines the continuing legacy of racism and prejudice. The facilitated program will allow readers to more fully understand the context, and to engage in dialog.

Additionally, the Somerset group will be working in partnership with EJI to conduct an essay contest for local high school students and to erect historical markers acknowledging the history of racial terror lynching and the men who were lynched in Somerset County.

The Somerset committee is actively seeking local people to participate in oral history interviews. If you or a family member are descendants of or related to Isaac Kemp, William Andrews, James Reed, or George Armwood, please reach out to the Somerset Lynching Memorial Project-Truth and Reconciliation Committee at somerset@mdlynchingmemorial.org. If you or a family member are related to any alleged accusers, perpetrators, lynch mob participants, or witnesses, your story is important, too. Please reach out to the committee.

Both the state commission and the local committee members recognize that these stories and experiences may be painful — on all sides — but, in an effort to more fully understand and promote healing, please consider becoming involved in this effort.

Hosting a public hearing

The Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in partnership with the local committee, will host a public hearing, slated for October, at UMES. The event will include guest speakers and community members, including relatives of Somerset lynching victims and descendants of accusers and witnesses.

The facilitated conversation will be designed to both acknowledge the victims and the legacy of racial terror in the community, and to promote community healing.

For more information or to find out how to become involved, locally, follow @SomersetTruthandReconciliation on Facebook or email somerset@mdlynchingmemorial.org.

Resources:
Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission - https://msa.maryland.gov/lynching-truth-reconciliation/
Maryland Lynching Memorial Project - https://www.mdlynchingmemorial.org
Equal Justice Initiative - https://eji.org
Now We Know Their Names, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2022/02/america-lynching-history-reckoning/621320/

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