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Maryland governor apologizes to 34 black lynching victims

About a decade ago, Tina Johnson of Princess Anne, Md., Was taking a college class on the history of her state when she came across a household name.

A passage in her textbook said that a young man named George Armwood was the last black man to be lynched in Maryland. Ms. Johnson held up a hand in class. “This is my cousin,” she remembered and said to the professor.

Mrs. Johnson, now 35, had heard of Mr. Armwood: She was a child when her grandmother Mary Braxton told her about the day he was accused of assaulting a white woman in 1933.

Ms. Braxton, Mr. Armwood’s first cousin, told Ms. Johnson that he pleaded innocence and tried desperately to hide from the police. He was eventually taken to a prison in Princess Anne where he was found by a lynching mob.

“He was beaten, stabbed and kicked before he was tied to the back of a truck and driven to the place where he would be hanged,” according to a state history archive.

Now, 88 years later, Mr. Armwood has been officially pardoned along with 33 other black men and boys who were lynched in Maryland between 1854 and 1933.

“I hope that this action will at least in some way help to correct these terrible mistakes,” said Republican Governor Larry Hogan in a statement to her descendants and family members. “

Mr. Hogan announced the pardon at a press conference on Saturday in Towson, Md., At which a plaque was erected to commemorate another lynch victim, Howard Cooper, who was 15 years old when he was accused in 1885 of being a white girl having sexually assaulted.

After Howard was convicted by an all-white jury, his attorneys wanted to appeal to the United States Supreme Court, according to the state archives. Instead, a lynch mob broke into the prison, dragged him out of his cell and hung him on a tree.

Last year eighth graders at Loch Raven Technical Academy in Towson took an interest in Howard Cooper while taking a juvenile justice class. They learned that like them, he had been a teenager.

“When they were presented with Howard’s story, they really saw in it a way to make a difference and use their voice,” said Michelle St. Pierre, who teaches the course. She said the students were working on a petition for a pardon when the pandemic disrupted them. On Saturday, Mr Hogan said her work inspired him to take action.

“I was just pleased that he heard the voice of my students,” said Ms. St. Pierre. “They wanted it to be recorded that this case was unfair.”

The pardons were also sponsored by the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, a nonprofit group that worked to bring the stories of lynch victims to light. Will Schwarz, the organization’s president, wrote a letter to Mr. Hogan in February asking him to posthumously apologize to Howard Cooper.

“It’s a step to change the narrative and correct the story that has been misrepresented for so long,” Schwarz said in an interview. “I hope it helps people understand how this original sin continues to worsen our lives.”

Ms. Schwarz said his work was inspired by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal advocacy group that documented more than 4,000 lynchings against racial terror in the United States between 1877 and 1950.

The extrajudicial killings were instruments of terror, often carried out as public spectacles in full view or in collaboration with law enforcement agencies. Many of these were documented by Ida B. Wells, a black journalist who risked her own safety to investigate lynching in the Jim Crow era.

In 2019, Maryland established a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to investigate lynching in the state, of which there were at least 40. The 34 men and boys pardoned on Saturday had been arrested, charged or detained before they were killed.

These included James Carroll, who was abducted from a train and hanged from a tree in Point of Rocks, Md., In 1879; George Briscoe, who was jailed in Annapolis in 1884 when he was lynched; William Andrews, who was captured by a mob immediately after his trial at Princess Anne in 1897; and Mr. Armwood, who tried in vain to hide under a mattress when a lynch mob broke into his prison cell in 1933.

As far as Ms. Johnson can remember, her grandmother, Ms. Braxton, who died in 2011, mentioned Mr. Armwood only once. “I remember that one tear that fell from her eye,” Ms. Johnson said.

Since hearing his name in college, Ms. Johnson has been working to learn more about Mr. Armwood’s life. He was known for his constant whistling and singing, she said. He had a weakness for the gospel song “His eye is on the sparrow”.

Ms. Johnson said it was important to recognize the history of lynchings in the United States. “The past becomes the present very easily,” she said, referring to the recent police killings of blacks. “And that means the past stories are still relevant.”

She added that the vast majority of people who committed lynchings in the United States were not held accountable while the victims’ families faced severe casualties.

“Now he’s been pardoned,” Ms. Johnson said of Mr. Armwood. “But what kind of reimbursement was there?”

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