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Reliving History

Law Professor Sherrilyn Ifill Offers Restorative Justice In On The Courthouse Lawn

Sam Holden

By Petula Caesar | Posted 1/31/2007

Sherrilyn Ifill talks and leads a discussion of her new book

Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, 1 p.m., Feb. 3.

For more information visit

For a significant number of adults, the Civil Rights movement is purely historical. It exists only vaguely in the memories of many others--my dad took me to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak, but I was a year and a half old at the time. The story goes like this: injustices existed, protests were held, King gave a speech about his dream, laws were passed or changed, and now we all live happily ever after. Or do we? How easy is it for blacks or whites to forget a past--one that isn't ancient history--that includes racial terrorism and violence? Should it be forgotten? How should it be remembered? At what point does remembering the past hinder moving into the future? Do we ignore history because we weren't there? And if we do, are we settling for what Sherrilyn Ifill calls the "veneer of unity."

Ifill is a University of Maryland law professor and has been a civil-rights attorney for over 17 years with the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund and in private practice. Her work on behalf of a group of African-American clients who were victims of discrimination in and around Wicomico County led her to discover the history of lynching on the Eastern Shore. She was struck at how closely the reactions of both blacks and whites on the Eastern Shore mirrored the reactions of black and white South Africans when faced with their history of apartheid.

"I have been amazed to discover how often and how pervasively racial violence figures into the history of small towns and cities throughout the United States," she writes in the introduction of her new book, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century, which not only discusses Shore lynchings but also offers South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with its emphasis on restorative justice, as a way to finally bring all the stories of the Shore's painful past to the light to facilitate healing for individuals, communities, and organizations.

The Eastern Shore's lynching history demonstrates how laws address only one puzzle piece in race relations. Laws in and of themselves do not ensure compliance by those who find said laws in conflict with their personal views. "We must recognize, respectfully, the limitations of the law," Ifill says during a telephone interview. "It is one of my challenges as a civil-rights attorney to address the laziness: We feel [civil rights] laws have been passed, so our work is done."

On the Courthouse Lawn--the title is taken from the frequent location of lynchings--is a thoroughly researched, unflinching account of the ugly history of the Eastern Shore's early 20th century lynchings, the last of which occurred in 1933. You might think these horrors would have left the present-day community's consciousness, but "in any conflict, there is a `winner' and a `loser,'" Ifill says. "The `loser' accommodates its history to that of the `winner.' But the memories of the `loser' do not change. They hold on to their truth. These stories are still told. They last over decades, even centuries."

In Courthouse Lawn Ifill elaborates: "Most blacks with whom I spoke had heard about the lynchings when they were children, eavesdropping on `grown folks' hushed conversations." It reminds me about my own visits to the Shore, listening to the stories of the African-American elders, voices low, an odd combination of pain, fear, and defiance in their voices. "People still pass on the stories," Ifill says. "They still exist."

The book's first part describes in detail the lynchings of Matthew Williams in December 1931 and George Armwood in 1933. (The book also reports in slightly lesser detail on other lynching and near-lynching episodes.) Ifill's exhaustive investigation, which includes everything from archival information from area newspapers to documents from local historical societies, paints an up-close, clear picture of the overall conditions that led to these lynchings.

Lynchings had occurred on the Eastern Shore since before the Civil War, when mobs sought to murder free blacks, especially those thought to be assisting runaway slaves. Blacks on the Shore were isolated from cities with significant black populations, like Baltimore, and all the things those populations created: black colleges, large black churches, black lodges, and similar institutions, along with a fair-sized middle class that possessed some education and exposure to ideas beyond their experiences. Things were different on the Shore, with its strictly enforced Jim Crow laws and no real access to opportunities for advancement, which left most Shore blacks in servile positions with low wages as laborers or domestics. There were only occasional improvements in the conditions of blacks on the Shore during this period, including the construction of a black high school, and, in a rare case of activism, black women crab pickers went on strike in Somerset County when their wages were reduced from 35 cents to 25 cents a gallon.

The Chesapeake Bay was central to the livelihood of Eastern Shore residents, and when the Great Depression hit, coupled with a hurricane in August 1933 that destroyed the corn and fruit crop, many whites found themselves in complete economic despair. That economic frustration, anger, and fear of what might lie ahead for white Shore residents was key to setting the stage for racial violence; the 1930s in general are the period when lynching in the U.S. was most widespread geographically.

Ifill draws detailed sketches of the victims she discusses--including information about their families, their relationship to the community, and the crimes of which they stood accused. Both Williams and Armwood were working closely alongside whites in subservient capacities as laborers, and both had been trusted by their white superiors before they were accused of their respective crimes--Williams was accused of shooting a white man in a dispute over money, and Armwood was accused of attempting to rob and assault an elderly white woman. Williams was dragged to the courthouse lawn in Salisbury while wearing a straitjacket, hit and stabbed repeatedly with an ice pick by onlookers, and hanged on the courthouse lawn. His body was then tied to a lamppost, doused with gasoline, and burned. Armwood was dragged from his jail cell in Princess Anne and was hanged while being kicked and pummeled by the crowd. Later his body was taken to another location, doused with gasoline, and burned.

Ifill peels back the layers of complicity that led to such shocking violence witnessed by hundreds of people. "Mass social violence happens with complicity," Ifill says, as she cites how Shore institutions made lynching acceptable--from police officers who would only leisurely protect black suspects from mobs, if at all, and would not participate in investigations to find those responsible for the lynchings, to townspeople who watched silently and wouldn't identify the lynchers; such perpetrators were always said to be outsiders from other towns or states.

Even newspaper coverage left much to be desired. The Salisbury Times decided not to report on one particular "demonstration," as lynchings were referred to. On the front page of the paper the day after the heinous murder was a statement saying while the slaying "was deplorable, as was also the mob scene," that it "behooves every one of us to co-operate in speeding up a return to absolutely normal and harmonious conditions." The Baltimore Sun's stories about the lynchings were always told from the point of view from some white observer and never included details about those lynched; sometimes the victims' names weren't spelled correctly if they were mentioned at all. The Afro-American newspaper often interviewed family members of victims or described their demeanor and personal habits: in one case the Afro noted that the victim kept his hair meticulously styled in a "conk," and often could be found at the local black beauty salon. Additionally, the Afro's coverage always challenged whether the accused was actually guilty of the crime(s) of which they were charged.

Crossing the Bay Bridge can feel like you're leaving the world you know behind, and Ifill points out how the Shore's geography contributes to its cultural singularity and isolation. "Geography plays a major role in the particular case of the Eastern Shore," she says. "It created its own culture. It depended on the bay for much of its industry and survival. It added to the closing of ranks, protecting of self-image. Communities saw themselves in a certain way, and this perpetuated insularity."

Isolation is a common theme when it comes to race relations. And just because Ifill, who currently lives in Baltimore but is originally from New York, is an outsider--and an African-American--to the Shore, that doesn't mean she cannot understand the emotions that abide within white and black residents and their history. Ifill points out that "people on the same side can have different truths." In Courthouse Lawn Ifill tells the story of Polly Stewart, a former longtime Shore resident and former professor at Salisbury University. Stewart did a presentation to Salisbury's historical society on a local lynching, and was met with anger, hostility, and resentment from her white colleagues and friends--they did not approve of her treatment of the lynching as a defining racial event in Salisbury.

Stewart wrote about this experience in an essay that appeared in the 1992 book A Sense of Place: American Regional Cultures. When Ifill came upon this essay, she contacted Stewart. When they spoke in 2004, Stewart told Ifill she was "snubbed for years after," Ifill writes. "It was clear, in our conversation, that Stewart was still nursing the hurt of her rejection." Over the phone, Ifill compares Stewart's reaction to the experiences of many Southern whites who discover the roles their parents or grandparents played in the white supremacy movement. "Intraracial conflict can fracture communities as much as interracial conflict in just the same way blacks made decisions to be silent or to blame the victim," she says. Ifill notes how blacks would say, "`If black men would just stop attacking white people' or `We're all basically good, there's just a few of us that aren't.' You have conflict within the victim community about the truth. But all the stories need to be on the table."

And Courthouse Lawn's second half offers some concrete ideas on how communities can heal by citing the work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one of the major inspirations for the book. The commission, while not a perfect process, still did something the U.S. never has--it presented a formal process on a national level to confront the history of racial terrorism. The proceedings were chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and at the commission's televised hearings black victims testified to their agonized sufferings and white perpetrators confessed to horrific acts of violence.

In this country "baby steps are being taken," Ifill says. Wilmington, N.C., and Duluth, Minn., have held truth and reconciliation councils to address their local racial histories, with people from all sides coming together. And Ifill recognizes the need for communities to heal their wounds. "Only the people in those communities can determine what tools should be used and what should take place," she says. "The whole community needs to identify what should be addressed and confronted. We wait for some outside force to impose some kind of procedure, some kind of law on us. We should not be waiting. Feelings about race come from what happens in a community, not what happens in Washington, D.C. Communities should look within to recognize and confront those feelings."

Restorative justice for the Eastern Shore could include creating commemorative public spaces, issuing public apologies to the community, marking the unmarked graves of lynching victims, creating educational programs about the events, and, yes, even financial compensation for victims' families or for businesses destroyed because of the lynchings. But whatever form justice might take, it would represent "a recognition that the damages of racial violence aren't altogether apparent with the conflict's end," as Ifill says. This is the driving force behind On the Courthouse Lawn. "People say you can't change how people think," Ifill says. "That's absurd. What is the job for the 21st century? This is the job. We can't settle for the veneer of unity." H

Sherrilyn Ifill talks and leads a discussion of her new book at 1 p.m., Feb. 3, at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. For more information visit

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