A bill to create a commission for examining Maryland’s lynching history is moving through the statehouse, as the push to acknowledge the state’s harrowing past gains momentum.
House Bill 307, introduced in January by Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s) and more than 60 bipartisan co-sponsors, passed March 14 by a 136-0 vote in the House of Delegates and was assigned to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee for deliberation.
The legislation calls to establish the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would require research of local cases of racially motivated lynchings, regional public hearings to be held where a lynching of an African American by a white mob has been documented and a final report to the governor and the General Assembly about the commission’s findings.
“We are asking our supporters to contact their state senators now to urge them to support the bill in that chamber,” said Will Schwarz, executive director of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. “The Senate is a different body and a different challenge.”
If passed, the legislation would take effect June 1 and remain effective for three years.
“I am hopeful that the bill will pass,” Peña-Melnyk said. “We need to know our past to understand our future.”
Of the more than 4,000 Black Americans lynched in the United States between 1865 and 1950, 40 cases have been documented to have occurred in Maryland.
Historians and activists cite NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Director Sherrilyn Ifill’s 2003 legal journal article, “Creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Lynching,” and her 2007 book, “On The Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century,” which detailed extrajudicial killings on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, as a turning point in public awareness locally and nationally.
With more than $20 million in private and charitable donations, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to the memory of the victims of lynching, opened in Montgomery, Alabama, last year as part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which documents and displays the history of slavery and racism in America.
According to Schwarz, the proposed Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not directly connected to the museum in Alabama, though they share in the same public education mission and goals.
“The very visible and well-publicized efforts by [the initiative] have certainly helped pave the way for local and state coalitions to gain a more sympathetic reception for community initiatives,” Schwarz said. “People are generally becoming more aware of how the legacy of lynching continues to exert its influence in our daily lives and why it’s critical to confront it.”
Linda Duyer, community historian and author of “Mob Law on Delmarva,” which details violence from 1870 through the 1940s in the Eastern Shore region of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, expressed cautious support for the legislation.
“There is a danger that an incomplete examination of the truth could cause more harm than good and result in no reconciliation, so it is important to get it right,” Duyer said. “If the effort fails to do the difficult work of telling a more complete truth, then a reiteration of the brutality on African Americans may only perpetuate division. The pain involved in examining the truth is worth it if reconciliation is earnest and achievable. That difficult work should include investigating specific responsibility for some or most of those criminal lynchings. I am hopeful this effort will be successful and result in important positive change.”
Meanwhile, the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project’s Prince George’s County committee will hold a public meeting at 1 p.m. Sunday to explore ideas for community remembrance projects in the county, which has five documented lynchings of African Americans in its history.
The meeting at University Christian Church in Hyattsville will include two short films, presentations and community discussion, as well as complementary literature from Equal Justice Initiative.
For more information on the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project and upcoming events, go to mdlynchingmemorial.org.