No matter how gigantic or modest, memorials and monuments retain a certain power that we can feel when we encounter them. There are remnants of demolished workhouses in Western Ireland, worn down to lumps of stone foundations, that would go unrecognized if not for a good tour guide pointing them out. And there are specially designed architectural and immersive experiences like Berlin’s holocaust memorial, whose concrete blocks rise and tower over you the deeper you descend into the stark grid.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, produces a similarly visceral effect. As you travel through rows of tarnished steel columns inscribed with the names (if known) of several thousand Black people lynched in various counties throughout the United States, the blocks come to resemble hanged bodies raised higher and higher above you, forcing you to crane your neck as a witness.
Building upon the EJI’s research into the victims of racial terror lynchings, the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project (MLMP) aims to recognize sites where those crimes took place in this state—to make them visible with sign markers, and to honor the victims through ceremonial practices. Of the nearly 6,500 racial terror lynchings between 1865 and 1950 that EJI has documented, at least 38 were in Maryland. That number is smaller by orders of magnitude compared to those in former Confederate states, emphasizing the personal nature of the crime and the importance of remembering the victims.
An interactive map on the MLMP website tracks where and when these lynchings occurred and shares basic information about the victims. The organization also supports the work of 14 county-based coalitions to publicly mark these sites and honor the victims. For Will Schwarz, president of MLMP’s board of directors, the nonprofit’s goal is straightforward: “The ask is: Learn this history, acknowledge this history, and realize the way that it continues to affect us. And change it,” Schwarz told TRNN.
This Saturday, Nov. 12, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture will host MLMP’s fifth annual conference, featuring presentations, discussions, and film screenings with researchers, educators, and historians. Keynote speaker Terry Anne Scott is the author of Lynching and Leisure: Race and the Transformation of Mob Violence in Texas, which examines how these crimes functioned as recreational entertainment for white people while debasing and terrorizing Black people. Along with conversations about how to teach this history to children and evaluating the work of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Lewis Museum director Terri Freeman will give an update on the progress of MLMP’s permanent exhibition at the institution, which has already secured $650,000 in federal funding. As a whole, the public conference will examine the history and legacy of racial terror lynchings in Maryland, what residents and electeds around the state are doing to shed light on that history, and what reconciliation could look like.
Since its founding in 2018, MLMP has helped a small collective of interested residents and researchers grow into a loose network of somewhere around a thousand people, Schwarz says. It started after Schwarz saw Bryan Stevenson give a talk at the Enoch Pratt library in Baltimore in 2015. Promoting his book Just Mercy, the lawyer and EJI founder also spoke about EJI’s research of lynchings in the South, which sparked Schwarz’s curiosity about similar crimes that must have occurred in Maryland.
Initially, Schwarz, a television producer, sought to learn more in order to produce a documentary film on the subject, but this interest formed the foundations for what would become the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. A friend who was a high-school teacher thought this would make a good extracurricular project for students, so Schwarz worked with them on research and connected with experts on racial terror lynchings, and with archivists at the Lewis Museum and the Maryland Historical Society, among others.
Through this research, Schwarz learned about the murder of 15-year-old Howard Cooper on July 13, 1885, in Towson. He and the student-researchers collected soil from the site of Cooper’s death for the EJI Community Soil Collection Project in February 2018, and incorporated MLMP as a nonprofit a month later with two other board members, including scholar Nicholas Creary, then a professor at Bowie State University researching Maryland lynchings.
Since 2018, MLMP has engaged more experts and scholars and has taken about a dozen soil samples from lynching sites for EJI. Five of those sites have been recognized with historic markers sponsored by EJI.
A major facet of Schwarz’s work with MLMP has focused on helping to form local county groups and supporting their efforts to identify lynching sites and research the stories connected to them. “In counties where there are multiple lynchings, for instance, I think there should be separate ceremonies, separate soil collections, separate markers for each of these,” Schwarz said. “The more you get it into the public eye and into the local press, the more people get [comfortable] with talking about and acknowledging [this history]. I mean, so many people have no idea.”
For all involved with the MLMP, making the public more aware of these crimes, and honoring the lives of the dead, is a critical counterweight to the depraved spectacle that lynchings engendered. The subject is germane to the ongoing conversation around racial reckoning in America—a conversation that is often derailed by distractions like the GOP’s manufactured panic around “critical race theory” and the Democrats’ empty symbolic gestures towards racial harmony.
This work is also entangled with questions about what we in the United States devote monuments and memorials to and why—questions to which groups such as the Philadelphia-based Monument Lab seek responses. “Our lack of full acknowledgment or accounting for the harms of our past merges into our present travails,” write the three co-directors of the organization’s 2021 National Monument Audit. “Monuments serve as places to harness public memory and acknowledge collective forgetfulness as twin forces holding up this nation.” The MLMP and likeminded collectives understand that it is up to the living to record, translate, and share the stories of a place.