Will Schwarz admits he was absolutely stunned when first learning about the history and extent of lynching in Maryland.
“I knew there was lynching, but I had no idea of the scale, depth or depravity of lynching in our state,” he says.
In response, Schwarz last year founded the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. The project documents the history of lynching in Maryland, advocates for public acknowledgement of historical premeditated group killings, and seeks to recognize and honor the victims.
On Sept. 12, the project and the University of Baltimore School of Law will will hold a public launch for the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The event will feature a keynote address by Sherrilyn A. Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Ifill is the author of the 2007 book, “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century” (Beacon Press).
Schwarz, 69, an award-winning producer and writer of non-fiction television, now finds himself at the center of a statewide social justice movement.
“I never thought this would happen,” he says. “It’s all been a surprise. The genesis of the lynching project really was Bryan Stevenson’s book tour.”
An attorney, bestselling author and civil rights activist, Stevenson came to Baltimore in February of 2015 to promote his book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” (Spiegel & Grau).
On a friend’s recommendation, Schwarz showed up at the Enoch Pratt Free Library for the talk by Stevenson, who is founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Ala. The experience proved to be life-changing for Schwarz, a native of Port Chester, N.Y.
“At the time, the EJI was just finishing a report on lynching in America,” he says. The report, titled “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” was “jaw-dropping” but focused primarily on the 11 states of the Confederacy and the border state of Kentucky, he says.
Schwarz became curious about Maryland’s history of lynching. After finding little information about the topic, he began working with his friend Daniel Jacoby, a Park School upper school history teacher, and some of Jacoby’s students to research Maryland’s lynching legacy.
The group learned that at least 41 documented lynchings took place in “the Free State” between 1854 and 1933.
“There were documented lynchings in Maryland over an 80 year span, but most occurred in the 30 years following Reconstruction,” Schwarz says. “There was a big epidemic of terror unleashed at that time.”
Schwarz was shocked to learn that the 1885 lynching of Howard Cooper, an African-American teenager, took place in front of the old Baltimore County Jail, which is located not far from Schwarz’s Towson residence.
Like many lynching victims, Cooper was accused of assaulting a white woman.
“The case was tried in Baltimore City,” Schwarz says. “The jury never left the courtroom. They found him guilty in two minutes. There would be no appeal. …
“On a Sunday evening in July, 75 men stormed the jail,” he says. “They waited until dark because they didn’t want to hang Cooper on ‘the Lord’s Day.’ They hung him on a sycamore tree outside the jail. It’s hard for me to drive by that building now and not think about his mother collecting his body the next day.”
In February of 2018, Schwarz worked with the EJI to organize a soil collection at the Towson jail site. As part of its Community Remembrance Project, EJI encourages communities across the nation to collect soil samples from the scenes of lynchings and place historic markers at those sites. Schwarz hopes to erect such a marker at the site of the Cooper lynching.
After collection, soil samples are displayed at the EJI’s new Legacy Museum in Montgomery. The museum — which documents the history of racism in the United States, from slavery and lynching to Jim Crow laws and police brutality – opened in 2018, in addition to an EJI-sponsored National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
After the Towson soil collection, Schwarz officially founded the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. Since then, he says, “The project has taken on a life of its own.”
Last October, Schwarz and his nonprofit organized “Lynching in Maryland: The Path from Truth to Reconciliation,” a half-day conference at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.
“It was pegged to the 85th anniversary of the George Armwood lynching in Princess Anne [in Somerset County, Md.],” says Schwarz.
At the conference, Schwarz screened his award-winning documentary “The Lynching of George Armwood,” which examines the 1933 mob murder of a 23-year-old black laborer from Pocomoke City who reportedly was mentally ill. The conference also featured talks by Dr. Nicholas Creary, a history professor at Bowie State University, attorney and former judge William H. Murphy Jr., federal public defender James Wyda, and representatives of the EJI, the Maryland State Archives and the Maryland Historical Society.
“We wanted to talk about what happened … the legacy of lynching and how it exerts influence on today’s legal system, and how to acknowledge this,” says Schwarz. “All the tickets were gone before the event was announced. It was a really moving occasion. People came from all over the state and started to form coalitions in many of the counties where lynchings occurred. We’ve been helping them to start their own community remembrance projects.”
Activists in Maryland also lobbied to pass House Bill 307, the Lynching Reconciliation Act. Last April, Gov. Larry Hogan authorized funding for the nation’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Lynching.
“Ultimately, what we’re asking people to do is steer the ship of the state toward empathy,” say Schwarz. “Empathy can be taught. And there’s a direct line between a society that accepts lynching to a society that tolerated the shooting of a black man in the back. Look at mass incarceration, income and health disparity, arrests — no one can seriously deny we’re still feeling this. Because it’s taken so long, that’s why it’s urgent.
“Once you know about this, how can you turn your back? This is our country.”
For information about the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project and the Truth and Reconciliation meeting, visit http://mdlynchingmemorial.org.