BALTIMORE – La’Tanya Christopher had traced one line of her family, the Kings, back five generations in a small town near Salisbury on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
But it was not until a group of activists conducted their own dive into local history, revisiting the lynchings in Salisbury’s past and memorializing the victims by saying their names, that she learned of Garfield King.
An 18-year-old Black man in 1898, he was dragged from a jail cell by a white mob that beat, kicked and hanged him, riddling his body with as many as 50 gunshots.
“How did I not know this?” Christopher, 44, wondered.
The answer, she believes, is fear: It kept King’s father from retrieving his body at the time, and continued through the generations.
And indeed, historians say the point of lynching — the savagery and its highly public nature — was to terrorize and thus control Black people, at the time and beyond.
“We’re talking about multiple generations that lived with this very real fear,” said Creston Long, an associate professor of history at Salisbury University. “The wounds left by events like a lynching are deep, and they last.”
But recently, efforts in Maryland and elsewhere are drawing this shameful history from the shadows of history with pledges to be “Silent No More,” as an event last month in Salisbury was titled.
Dozens gathered for the unveiling of a historical marker detailing the lynchings of King and two other men in Wicomico County. The bright blue sign stands outside the courthouse, where two of the lynchings took place and where, coincidentally, Christopher works as a case manager.
Those who attended, a group that included activists, government officials, civic and faith leaders and descendants of victims, describe it as an emotional event, particularly a march that retraced the route that another mob took in 1931 when a 23-year-old Black man was pulled from a hospital bed, thrown out the window and stabbed and dragged by truck to the courthouse lawn to be hanged and further brutalized.
Matthew Williams had been accused of killing his longtime employer, Daniel Jefferson Elliott, a lumberyard and box factory owner, in what reportedly began as a discussion over wages, according to the Maryland State Archives. While some details of the incident remain murky or disputed, Williams himself was also shot, which is how he wound up in the hospital stormed by the mob.
Nearly 90 years later, the “Silent No More” event brought together descendants of both Elliott and Williams.
Neal White, 71, who is Elliott’s great-grandson and lives in the house his ancestor built, said the event was an opportunity “to state as a community this was wrong.”
White, a nursing home administrator who served on the city’s task force for the lynching memorial, said he felt compelled to introduce himself to Jeannie Jones, 47, a descendant of Williams.
“I told her I wanted her to know my family was at peace and I hope hers is too,” White said.
Jones, who grew up in Washington and now lives in Los Angeles, said she was grateful for the gesture. It had been unnerving to return to Salisbury, which she had visited as a child on family trips, with the newly acquired knowledge of the lynching.
“It was like taking a Band-Aid off a wound that had not really healed yet,” said Jones, a radio and TV host who owns a production company.
“When he approached me, it was like beginning to apply an ointment to the wound.”
A marker comes down
The new marker represents quite a turnaround for Salisbury in the space of less than a year. Last June, activists succeeded in a yearslong battle to have a previous marker, one honoring a Confederate general, taken down from the courthouse grounds.
Many of the same activists worked to raise awareness of the lynchings in Salisbury, hosting vigils over the years on anniversaries of the crimes and working to erect the new marker.
“There is hope for racial healing and transforming our society,” said Charles L. Chavis, Jr., a historian and vice-chair of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “That’s what’s so powerful about what’s going on in Salisbury.”
Chavis is among those who credits the city’s mayor, Jake Day, for supporting the activists’ work.
While there was some opposition to removing the Confederate marker, Day characterizes it as small, vocal and ultimately ineffective in the face of what he and the activists believed was the right thing to do.
“If you stand by your convictions, there wasn’t a compromise or middle ground,” Day said of the signs. “One’s coming down, and another’s going up.”
Salisbury, located on the largely conservative Eastern Shore, may seem an unlikely place for wrestling with issues of historical memory — and erasure — of racial injustices past and present.
But the city of 33,000 is something of a progressive enclave, where Democrats outnumber Republicans, Day said. And it became a majority-minority city several years ago, according to The Daily Times of Salisbury, when census figures showed white residents dropped below half of the population and the number of Hispanic and Black residents rose.
Salisbury of course is not alone in reexamining its past as communities across the country have tried to come to terms with monuments to the losing side in the Civil War and, increasingly, the lynchings that followed during Reconstruction and into the 20th century. Towson recently unveiled its own marker, memorializing the 1885 lynching of a 15-year-old named Howard Cooper.
At least 44 lynchings occurred in Maryland, in 18 of the state’s 24 counties. In the U.S., more than 4,000 African Americans were lynched from 1877 to 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. The nonprofit opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018 to honor lynching victims. It also works with localities such as Salisbury that want to probe their own history and engage their communities on current issues of race and justice.
Many see what Chavis calls “a through line” between the lynchings of the past to the more recent deaths of Black men such as Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging in a Georgia neighborhood in February 2020 when a white father and son in a truck chased and fatally shot him, and George Floyd, whose death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer one year ago led to a nationwide protests.
Christopher said it was only while watching the trial of the former officer, Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murder, that she realized a chilling connection: Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020, exactly 122 years after her family member Garfield King was lynched.
“It’s like history repeating itself,” she said.
“It’s just, it’s just …” Christopher said, searching for the right word. “It’s just disheartening.”
The witnesses ‘all agreed’
“WICOMICO AROUSED” was the headline of an article in The Baltimore Sun on May 28, 1898, following up on King’s lynching. King was accused of shooting a 22-year-old white man, Herman Kenney, in an altercation outside a store. Kenney died several days later.
Witnesses who testified before a coroner’s jury could not identify members of the mob that lynched King because of dim lighting and their facial coverings, The Sun said.
Bizarrely, the witnesses “all agreed” the leader of the mob was a “mysterious tall man,” The Sun reported. It added that this “seems to be a peculiarity for lynchings,” with similar descriptions of the leaders of lynchings in Somerset and Caroline counties. The article goes on to say the jury determined “King came to his death at the hands of unknown parties,” and “that there is a sameness in the verdicts rendered in such cases.”
Some 33 years later, the lynching of Williams was heavily covered by newspapers including Baltimore’s Afro American, which took to adding “Lynch-town” to the Salisbury dateline. The paper quoted witnesses giving harrowing accounts of how the mob hanged him and then dragged his body to “the Negro section of the town” where they set it ablaze and mutilated it.
The Afro also reported on another Black man whose body had been found near a railroad track in Salisbury in the days after Williams’ death. Salisbury University’s Long, who directs the school’s Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, credits the reporting with contributing to the belief that the man, who had been beaten to death, was the county’s third lynching victim.
All three victims are memorialized on the new marker.
Chavis has written a book, “The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State,” scheduled to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in January.
Long said that while the lynchings may have happened decades ago, their effects linger in the racial inequities of today.
“We need to actually talk more about the lasting consequences of the lynchings,” he said.
For Christopher, the new marker and the welcome it has received indicates that after decades of silence, people are ready to do just that.
“Who cares who is uncomfortable,” she said. “We’re going to talk about it.”