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While working on Maryland’s Eastern Shore several years ago, Baltimore civil rights attorney and law professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill didn’t expect to confront a segment of that area’s shameful past. The last two lynchings on the Eastern Shore occurred nearly 80 years ago. But during her investigations into discrimination against low-income families in Maryland, Ifill kept hearing from residents who had seen the lynchings or heard stories about them as they were growing up. “I would regularly hear my clients talk about lynchings, and I found this consistency quite alarming,” Ifill says. One surprising element, she says, was the detail they were able to give about the lynchings. And even more surprising was that although residents openly expressed these long-held feelings to her, they remained silent to the rest of the world. No one spoke of the lynchings to other members of the community, she found. And the gap between the way blacks remembered the lynchings and how whites recalled the events was enough to make Ifill, a law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, dig around until she had enough research material for a book. The result is an exploration of the Eastern Shore’s history of lynching, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century. In the book, Ifill discusses the social and economic rifts caused by the lingering code of silence and what she calls a sense of complicity within that area’s white community. “During my time on the Eastern Shore, I was also struck by the very different way that whites would confirm that yes, there had been a lynching — two, in fact. But where blacks had often identified a family member — grandfather, uncle, or other relative — who heard the lynching, saw the body the next day, or knew the lynched man, whites consistently professed to know very little about the lynchings,” Ifill writes. Ifill says she found this silence by whites and their detachment from the lynchings quite extraordinary when contrasted with the rich and detailed recollections of blacks. One reason for the Eastern Shore’s defensive posture and lack of progress might be the area’s educational and economic differences from the surrounding areas. Citing data from the 2000 Census, Ifill compares the poverty levels on the Eastern Shore and the Western Shore, the area west of Chesapeake Bay. The percentage of people living in poverty in Western Shore counties was between 2.5 percent and 3.6 percent in 2000. In the Eastern Shore, that number was between 8.7 percent and 15 percent, she writes. During the 1930s, when lynchings there were criticized by the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore media, Eastern Shore residents developed a deep sensitivity to criticism and what Ifill describes as a “fierce protectiveness of their local institutions, customs, and leaders.” As a result, Eastern Shore residents boycotted the sale and distribution of newspapers and attacked trucks delivering goods from those areas, she writes. “This self-imposed economic and cultural withdrawal from the most prosperous, diverse, and progressive regions of the state helped Shore whites remain for decades among the most educationally deficient and economically depressed in the state of Maryland,” she writes. Ifill depicts as a region still suffering from its history of lynching and says the Eastern Shore is only one of many such communities across the nation. PAINFUL PAST In On the Courthouse Lawn, Ifill tackles the remnants of a painful past in American history, in which 5,000 African-Americans were lynched across the country. The book’s title juxtaposes the justice denied to African-Americans in courtrooms and the justice found on courthouse lawns. In other words, although the courthouse is a place Americans can go to find protection under the law, the courthouse lawn became the ironic opposite: the place where angry mobs formed before a lynching and even where some lynchings took place. But the title also serves “to belie the myth that lynching was a secret barbarity, unknown to a majority of the populace,” Ifill writes. Because there is no record of any white person ever having been convicted of murder for lynching a black person — what Ifill calls a “damning and revealing statistic” — blacks’ distrust of whites on the Eastern Shore remains. “The criminal justice system played a critical role in subordinating and marginalizing blacks in southern states,” Ifill writes. “Blacks were regularly excluded from serving on juries in the South. . . . Jim Crow was the custom in courthouses.” One of the lynchings Ifill recounts in her book was the Dec. 4, 1931, lynching of 23-year-old Matthew Williams in Salisbury, Md. Williams, hung from a tree in front of the courthouse, was one of the last two lynching victims recorded on the Eastern Shore. In a gripping account of what happened to Williams, who many believed was framed for the murder of his employer, Ifill describes how he was dragged from a hospital toward the courthouse: The crowd grew. White residents flocked out of their homes and businesses and joined the mob’s procession. Williams was heavily bandaged about the face and was still wearing a straightjacket. As Williams struggled to remain on his feet, one member of the mob repeatedly stabbed him with an ice pick. He was dragged the rest of the way. . . . After Williams was hoisted up and down several times, his body was dragged again, this time to the bridge at the corner of Willow and Lake Streets on the outskirts of the black community. . . . Williams’ body was tied to a lamppost, drenched with gasoline, and set on fire. Though between 500 and 1,000 people witnessed the lynching that day, Ifill writes, no one was ever tried or convicted for Williams’ murder. ENCODED IN MEMORY Growing up in New York City, Ifill, who now lives in Baltimore, heard her share of lynching stories. The description was so clear, it seemed as if she was there, she recalls. “Every black person can describe a lynching, although we’ve never seen one. We know what the archetype of that was like. The descriptions passed down to us are so vivid that we end up thinking we saw it. It’s kind of encoded in the memory of African-Americans,” she says. On the other hand, Ifill argues that whites who heard about or witnessed lynchings claim to have a faded history of lynching when asked about the events. She writes that white children, now elderly, who witnessed lynchings “experienced a unique trauma reinforced by years of silence within their families and communities. Surprisingly, few have been willing to talk about what they saw and how it affected them.” Her experiences from her 17 years as a civil rights lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York, her time as a law professor, her 1998 trip to South Africa, and her understanding of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — assembled to help promote reconciliation in the shadow of human rights abuses against blacks during apartheid — moved Ifill to imagine a method of healing for whites and blacks in the United States. Ifill says her book is an attempt to spur the creation of a project similar to the South African commission to help break the code of silence and create healing within American communities where lynchings have occurred. “The project of reconciliation and reparation for lynching is urgently needed. As I discovered, and as the accounts here demonstrate, the aftereffects of lynching continue to shape and mold the communities where these acts occurred,” she writes in her book. Lately, she has been speaking out on the radio, including National Public Radio and XM Radio, hoping to spark dialogue. Her future plans include traveling to the Eastern Shore and several cities and towns in the surrounding area to discuss the book and her proposed healing process for local communities. That process could include the creation of monuments or commemorative public spaces in the community, mandatory school projects on the history of lynching, financial compensation for the descendants of lynching victims and for those whose homes or businesses were destroyed in the aftermath of lynching, and the reopening of criminal investigations into lynchings. Ifill says she’s not claiming to have all the answers for reconciliation and is hoping that communities throughout the country generate their own solutions. Her job, she says, was to recollect the historical accounts and disseminate the information that had otherwise been forgotten. The task was emotionally wrenching for her. Even so, she felt she had to write the book. “I realized that there was not a book-length treatment to weave it all together,” Ifill says. “It was a fascinating part of history to immerse myself in — sometimes a depressing one, but very inspirational.”
Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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