Maryland Governor Larry Hogan on Thursday signed HB 307 into law, creating the nation’s first statewide truth commission empowered to investigate racial terror lynchings and address the legacy of racial terror.
Sponsored by Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s Counties), the bill received overwhelming bipartisan support in the house and passed the state senate with a unanimous vote on April 8.
The act acknowledges that at least 40 African Americans were lynched in Maryland between 1854 and 1933 by white mobs who “intended to terrorize African American communities and force them into silence and subservience to the ideology of white supremacy.”
Government officials at all levels “colluded in the commission of these crimes and conspired to conceal the identities of the parties involved,” the preamble states. No one was ever tried, convicted, or otherwise brought to justice for participating in these racially motivated lynchings and no victim’s family or community ever received a formal apology or compensation for their loss.
The new law recognizes that truth and reconciliation are sequential. Because there must be “full knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of the truth before there can be any meaningful reconciliation,” the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission will start by holding public hearings across the state where families and communities affected by racial terror lynchings can tell their stories.
Dr. Nicholas Creary, an assistant professor of history at Bowie State University who helped write the new law, said in a statement that these hearings will “offer an opportunity to restore the humanity of both victims and perpetrators of violence” and “stop the silencing of African American communities that was an integral element of racial terror lynchings.”
Karla Wynn, a Baltimore City resident who attended a public meeting last fall about confronting the state’s lynching history, told the Baltimore Sun that many families whose ancestors were lynched still do not talk about it.
“It’s the psycho-social, spiritual, emotional and cultural trauma,” she said. “We’re still carrying this trauma in our genes, and it’s affecting us at all levels.”
The commission will also investigate and document lynching cases, focusing on the involvement of government entities and relevant news media. In addition to historians, civil rights officials, and members of the public, the commission will include a staff member from the Office of the Attorney General who is authorized to issue subpoenas for documents and witnesses. As Dr. Creary explained:
Beyond opportunities for truth telling, the hearings will highlight the complicity of various state organs and media outlets in participating in racial terror lynchings: the General Assembly failed to pass proposed anti-lynching legislation in 1898; county sheriffs and jailors allowed mobs to take men from jail with impunity; county state’s attorneys refused to identify and bring charges against members of lynch mobs; county coroners routinely claimed that the victims of lynching died “at the hands of parties unknown”; newspaper coverage of these events contributed to the creation of a culture that condoned and encouraged racial terror lynchings.
Addressing the Legacy of Racial Terror Lynching
Beginning on June 1, the LTRC will have three years to complete its final report, which is to include recommendations for addressing the legacy of lynching that are rooted in the spirit of restorative justice, including the erection of memorial plaques or signs at the sites of lynchings.
Public acknowledgment of mass violence is essential to reconciliation and healing, not only for victims and survivors but also for perpetrators and bystanders. But very few monuments or memorials address the history and legacy of lynching, and most victims of lynching have never been publicly acknowledged.
Instead, across the country, many communities where lynchings took place have erected monuments recognizing the Civil War, the Confederacy, and white Southerners’ violent retaking of local power after Reconstruction. In Alabama, three official state holidays celebrate the Confederacy: Robert E. Lee Day, Jefferson Davis’s birthday, and Confederate Memorial Day on April 22. (A new bill introduced in the Alabama legislature would move Lee Day, which is currently combined with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to Confederate Memorial Day.)
In Maryland, EJI has been working with the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project and other community partners throughout the state on community remembrance projects, including community education events, soil collections, and erecting historical markers at lynching sites.
EJI believes that this kind of local engagement ensures that a commitment to substantive dialogue and civic action will help shape our communities, rather than silence and division. As EJI Director Bryan Stevenson wrote in support of HB 307:
“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.”