Maryland Receives $300,000 Grant to Investigate Lynchings

An installation at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors thousands of people killed in lynchings. The site was established in Montgomery, Alabama in 2018.

An installation at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors thousands of people killed in lynchings. The site was established in Montgomery, Alabama in 2018. AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

The Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission received a $300,000 federal grant for their work that will “research and address the legacy of unsolved lynchings” in the state.

A Maryland commission focused on investigating unsolved lynchings in the state received a $300,000 federal grant this week, allowing the group to look into at least 43 unsolved lynchings during the 1800s and 1900s. 

The Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission received the grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Emmett Till Cold Case Investigations Program. Established by President Barack Obama in 2016, the program assists state, local, and tribal governments in investigating and prosecuting pre-1980 cold case murders associated with civil rights violations, including racist lynchings. 

The new federal funding will support a project called “Justice in the Aftermath: Documenting the Truth of Racial Terror Lynching in Maryland to Support Restorative Justice Among Affected Communities.”

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, whose office will be partnering with the state commission to complete the investigations, said that the grant “will allow the commission to acknowledge and address the brutality of lynchings that occurred in our own backyards.”

“Lynchings were witnessed, tolerated and, too often, encouraged by leaders in our state,” he said in a statement. “It is our obligation to do the difficult work to expose these harsh truths and address the harms to families, communities, and our state.”

Researchers have estimated that more than 4,400 Black Americans were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950, and an additional 2,000 were lynched between 1865 and 1877, the period immediately following the end of the Civil War. 

Maryland’s journey to solving and addressing racist lynchings began in 2019, when the state legislature unanimously approved a bill authorizing the formation of the state commission. The law also gave the attorney general subpoena power to call witnesses for lynching investigations, as well as tasking the commission with researching lynchings that weren’t previously documented and focusing on probing any involvement of government officials or the media. The commission is also required to hold public meetings in each county where there was a documented lynching of a Black person by a white mob.

Lynchings were designed not just to attack individual people, but to “terrorize African American communities and force them into silence and subservience to the ideology of white supremacy,” the legislation creating the Maryland commission noted. The legislation says that “various state, county, and local government entities colluded in the commission of these crimes and conspired to conceal the identities of the parties involved” and that “no victim’s family or community ever received a formal apology or compensation from state, county, or local government entities for the violent loss.”

The Maryland commission is the first statewide lynching commission in the country. Modeled in part after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that South Africa used to deal with the aftermath of apartheid, the group’s goal is to take a restorative justice approach. Restorative justice allows community members to weigh in on what steps should be taken to honor and compensate victims of crime. 

The creation of the commission was celebrated by civil rights groups like the NAACP and the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that opened a national lynching memorial in Alabama in 2018. The group’s director, civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, congratulated the state on its historic commission. “By publicly reckoning with the legacy of racial terrorism across the state, a communal process of atonement can guide the necessary development of collective healing,” he said. 

The commission’s initial report, released in September, said that the process was revealing “a painful, traumatic and generationally-defining truth, but a necessary truth nonetheless.”

In an interview last month with NPR, Charles L. Chavis, the vice chair of the commission, said that it’s a significant moment to uncover the truth about racist violence. “It's important to note that we see the racial terror lynchings of old that took place in Maryland directly in relationship to the ongoing racial terror that we're witnessing in the United States,” he sad. “And so that's important to consider when we're looking at this and investigating this today in this fractured America that we're seeing as it relates to race relations.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Chavis said that the grant funding will be “transformational” for the commission’s work. “The Commission will pursue and honor the victims of these human and civil rights murders, because we believe that the descendants and relatives are owed this truth,” he said. 

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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