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Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins work to address atrocities

At least 40 African Americans were lynched in Maryland between 1850 and 1950, according to research presented Thursday at the kickoff meeting of a statewide commission charged with examining each killing and recommending what Maryland should do as a form of reconciliation.

The Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created last spring by the Maryland General Assembly, was inspired by a commission formed in South Africa following the end of apartheid.

The Thursday evening event was held at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Addressing a crowd of about 200 in the law school’s moot courtroom, lawyer and author Sherrilyn Ifill praised the commission members and the state for working to understand the truth of an ugly part of history. Ifill discussed the history and lingering effects of lynching in Maryland in her 2007 book “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century.”

“Your job is to move the needle forward as far as you can, run the race and to pass the baton, and to feel the needle moving forward so we can even speak about these events with knowledge, with intention to confront them honestly,” said Ifill, who called for the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission in her book.

Ifill and other speakers stressed the importance of knowing the full truth about the atrocities of the past, including the response — or lack of response — of law enforcement, city government and local newspapers in each community.

The commission is the country’s first state government-sponsored effort to examine ways to grapple with a state’s history of lynching, according to former Bowie State University history professor Nicholas Creary, who came up with the idea for the panel.

“The way I described it to the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee was, ‘Think of it like 41 open murder cases,’” Creary said. “These are open cases where the police knew who did it but didn’t arrest anyone. The state’s attorneys knew who did it but didn’t charge anyone. In that context … what responsibility does the state and various state organs have to those individuals, their families and the broader communities?”

David Fakunle, who represented the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, said he hopes other states begin to follow the Maryland model.

“The uniqueness of a commission like this shouldn’t be taken lightly, and if we can become a model for other states to honestly and authentically address lynching, whether to people of color or not, that’s a great outcome,” said Fakunle, who serves as the commission’s chair.

The commission is to present an interim report to the state by September 2020, as well as a final report to the governor and General Assembly by the end of 2021 that details what has been learned and what steps should be taken to recognize and make amends to those affected by lynching.

The commission members — selected by Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel and the author of the House bill establishing the commission — consist of representatives from each of Maryland’s four historically black colleges and universities, a representative from the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and several state historians. Four spots remain to be filled by members of the public.

The commission will hold public hearings in each of the Maryland communities where lynchings occurred. The hope is that descendants of people who were lynched, as well as those who witnessed lynchings or had family members carry them out, will attend the hearings to provide accounts of what happened.

Guest speakers Ifill, Pena-Melnyk and University of Southern California political scientist Kelebogile Zvobgo also fielded questions Thursday about the challenges facing such a commission and about how racism and the effects of slavery persist in modern society.

University of Baltimore School of Law Dean Ronald Weich said Friday that it is important for the school to support the now-legal mandate that this history be addressed.

“As Ms. Ifill said, the history of lynching continues to reverberate in modern times, it has relevance for criminal justice policies, housing policies and other legal badges and remnants of de jure segregation,” Weich said. “Obviously, segregation is no longer legal, but … current criminal justice and housing policies, poverty — all relate to the history of lynching and slavery and Jim Crow.”

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