A new study from researchers at Bowie State University has identified at least 40 documented lynchings in Maryland between 1854 and 1933. 

The study, “Strange Fruit in the ‘Free State’: A History of Lynching in Maryland, 1854-1933,” was inspired by a visit to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore and its exhibit on lynchings, which underscored an important part of Maryland history, said Nicholas Creary, lead author of the study and an associate professor of history at Bowie State University.

“Our research reinforced the idea that Maryland is a southern state and acted like a southern state in the way it approached African Americans and practiced racial terrorism,” said Creary, who conducted the study along with students James Copeland and Sydney Lawson.

Lynching was used as “a tool of terror in support of the ideology and practice of White supremacy to keep African Americans in a position of political non-existence and social and economic subordination throughout the South,” the study noted. “It was the extralegal means to enforce the Color Line when African Americans engaged in activities that were thought to have transgressed the informal code of racial etiquette, including African American success or prosperity.”

Notably, Creary told the AFRO, that “tool” was not used exclusively on Maryland’s Eastern Shore as is widely purported; in fact, less than one-third of the documented lynchings in Maryland occurred in that jurisdiction.

In addition to that finding, their research also uncovered new victims not identified on the Maryland State Archives’ website and found the names of some who were listed as “unknown.”

The compendium of cases was amassed during eight weeks of research based on newspaper accounts. But Creary said there may be many more that people simply didn’t talk about.

“The effects of these lynchings on the local Black communities where they happened were devastating,” he said. “The lynchings terrorized these communities into silence, and some people still would not talk about it today.”

But the memories persist, he said, as do the legacies of lynching.

“It reinforced a locked position to not rock the boat, to not fight for change” among some African Americans, he said.

The disproportionate use of capital punishment against African-American defendants, inequities in the criminal justice system and the killing of unarmed African Americans by police and others also bear vestiges of lynching, the historian said.

“You look at the way police forces are militarized against African Americans today and you can see it is part and parcel of practices that are intended to dominate African Americans and keep them in their place,” Creary told the AFRO.

He added, “You can also see the complicity of the legal system which reinforces the idea that it is possible to kill African Americans with impunity and you don’t have to worry about facing any consequences. That is part of the legacy of lynching that still persist today.”

Creary said the current divisive political climate demonstrates the importance of ventilating hidden wounds, such as lynching, which continue to plague U.S. society.

“There needs to be an open and honest reckoning on these issues,” he said.

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO