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Road to Montgomery: A New Memorial Recalls a Maryland Lynching

In Montgomery, the heat is as brutal as the rumors say. “Texas-hot” is how a family friend described summer in Alabama when she learned that my father and I were to spend a weekend together down there. From almost any place in the U.S., Montgomery is “down there,” except from a few other states in the South, who see Alabama eye to eye. “Fried-egg-hot” is what Brian, a chatty Uber driver with an ash-brown goatee and a golden cross pendant hanging down his sunburned chest, called the weather in his home state. When my father and I dropped off our car for servicing by our hotel one Saturday morning in early August, it was Brian who picked us up in his black F-150 and spirited us into downtown Montgomery. A few minutes into the drive, Brian, a “God-fearing man,” according to his Uber profile, mentioned that we smelled like cigarettes. I told him that the Sleep Inn we booked still allows guests to smoke indoors. “Rules must be different down here,” my father added quietly. Brian just nodded and continued to discuss the heat.

Crucial to understanding why I was speeding west on I-85 in the backseat of Brian’s Ford pickup with my father, and why I was willing to travel the 1,574-mile round trip from my home in southern Maryland to central Alabama and back, is what, exactly, I was seeking in the South. The short answer is simple: the National Memorial for Peace and Justice had opened in Montgomery a few months prior to our trip. The memorial serves to remember the black victims killed by white lynch mobs in America between 1877 and 1950, and my father and I, white men from Maryland, wished to see it. That much I did know.

The long answer is more elusive. I knew that the memorial was the beginning of a new sort of remembering and the end of an older, more selective sort, and that somewhere along that spectrum was the place I am most deeply invested in: southern Maryland, the part of the South I have always called home. It was that investment that put my father and me on the I-95 corridor in my white Chevy Impala last summer. We steered through county after Southern county, our wheels devouring the asphalt until we reached a spot in western Georgia, just before the Alabama line, and hit some traffic. The Alannah Myles song “Black Velvet” began playing through the radio. We slowed to a crawl. As Myles hummed the song’s intro, I thought mostly of the home hundreds of miles behind me, and of how the story would only make sense if I started there, where I had been raised, and where a black man whose name I had never heard before was lynched and forgotten more than a century ago. But by then, dusk was approaching, and Montgomery was still eighty miles away, so I rested my eyes and listened to Myles sing us there.

        Mississippi in the middle of a dry spell

        Jimmy Rodgers on the Victrola up high

        Mama’s dancin’ with baby on her shoulder

        The sun is settin’ like molasses in the sky

***

Southern Maryland is a region stolen from swampland, a place where herons nest and breed, and where the market price of blue crabs serves the same conversational purpose that the cost of gasoline does elsewhere. The low-lying coastal plain that defines this area appears to bleed into the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, its major arteries being the Patuxent, which divides Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties; and the Potomac, which curls around Charles County and traces Maryland’s southern border past Washington, D.C., winding north through the Piedmont’s gentle hills, snaking between the pine-dotted slopes of western Maryland and into Appalachia.

Today the Potomac River serves the same purpose the Mason-Dixon Line once fulfilled: it divides the North from the South, attempts to keep Virginia and its sisters below separate from New England and the Mid-Atlantic in maps and minds. These lines become smudged in Maryland. The true cultural divide lies somewhere below Annapolis, the state’s capital, and roils like boiling water in a pot. Southern Maryland sits just below the surface.

Southern Maryland is both familiar and alien to me in the way only one’s home can be. I have lived my entire life there and know its particulars well: I know that you should go early to the breakfast buffet at St. Mary’s Landing on Sundays before the post-church rush, and I know that the town of La Plata, where I attended high school, was incorporated in 1888 when the railroad came through. I also know that there are local narratives concealed from my neighbors and me, histories willfully forgotten because nobody wanted to remember them. (My family has lived there long enough that one, if not several, of my ancestors were probably instrumental in the forgetting.) These dark stories lurk in census records and newspaper archives, waiting to be dragged into the sunlit present and told. One of these stories is the lynching of Benjamin Hance.

Little is known about Hance’s origins. He was born around 1865, near the end of the Civil War, and by his fifteenth birthday he had found his way to the village of Leonardtown in St. Mary’s County. There he was hired by Henry Mattingley, a single white oysterman about nine years his senior. Life on the water may have suited Hance; at the time of his death in 1887, he was still employed as a deckhand, having been hired by Captain Frank Russell sometime after working for Mattingley. Much of this information is recorded in the 1880 census, the only public record of Hance’s existence I could find aside from the newspaper coverage of his murder. When I peered at the handwritten census sheet, I imagined a fifteen-year-old Hance staring back, frozen in his youth by bureaucratic scrawl.

Whether Hance had any family in southern Maryland, or in Virginia, where he resided at the time of his death, is unclear. The victim’s relationships, his friendships, the people who held him dear: these were not the sort of details reported by newspapers, even those newspapers that most strongly condemned the injustice.

The part of Hance’s life which most interested the papers—his death—began at the old Leonardtown jail, a stout two-story building which still stands on the corner of Court House Drive and an unnamed back lane near the center of the town. It shares a large lawn with the St. Mary’s County Circuit Court, an imposing brick structure with four stately white columns guarding its façade.

I had seen the old jail before, but I had not consciously noticed it, nor had I known its role in Hance’s lynching. In the five years preceding Hance’s murder, six other black Marylanders were lynched. Among them was a man named Charles Whitley. A year before Hance’s death, a white mob hanged Whitley from a persimmon tree in Calvert County. Some newspapers claimed that Hance’s lynching was unexpected, as it was the first to take place in St. Mary’s County. But the county lines dividing southern Maryland are largely formalities. Calvert’s shoreline is visible to almost any observer on the St. Mary’s side of the Patuxent, even before the morning river fog dissipates. Gossip travels quickly over water there.

Hance’s lynching did not take place at the jail as it often does in these stories, but it almost did. On the night of May 27, 1887, Hance was arrested and charged with the attempted assault of a white woman named Alice Bailey. Hance was held in the jail for three weeks while awaiting trial. It was still dark outside when, on the morning of June 17, a white mob broke into the jail and kidnapped Hance. The mob planned to hang him from a locust tree on the shared lawn of the courthouse and the old jail. John T. Spalding, a white man whose property abutted the courthouse, requested that the mob find someplace else, so as not disturb his wife’s delicate disposition. The mob complied.

I visited the grounds of the old jail one afternoon this summer when the earth was baking and the air was damp, and when even the anxious honeybees seemed subdued in a tropic stupor. I walked the perimeter of the building and regarded a corroded cannon that had been salvaged from one of the first English ships to arrive in Maryland. Also preserved on the lawn was a boulder the size and shape of an overstuffed pillow. Known as the Moll Dyer Rock, it is said to have been found in 1697 near the body of Moll Dyer, the subject of Maryland’s most infamous witch trial legend. As I knelt down to inspect the rock more closely, I noticed that its surface pulsated with thousands of crawling black ants.

There were other items around the jail, among them a wooden bench resting in the shade of one large tree and an unpainted picnic table sitting beneath another. The air smelled heady, like the cheery yellow daffodils that ringed the seating area. The site would be ideal for a family picnic, were it not for the constant wondering, the tense involuntary glances cast toward the treetops. And the questions: How do I identify a locust tree? Can such a tree survive for more than a hundred years? Was Hance almost murdered here, right where I am sitting?

But these queries were mine. The tension, the anxious wondering: mine. No family picnicking outside the jail would be reminded of Hance’s lynching, because no reminder exists there. This is unsurprising. Lynchings are not often part of the history that Southern towns devote themselves to remembering, especially on the lawns of their most beloved institution: the courthouse.

The courthouse building loomed over me as I sat on the bench taking notes and swatting mosquitoes away from my arms. Four or five white boys, maybe ten years old, raced through a nearby parking lot on brightly colored, superhero-themed bicycles, their  laughter chiming like delicate bells. They paid no mind to the old jail. It occurred to me that if those boys were to visit the jail one day, what they would find is not an acknowledgment of the injustice done to Hance, but the pieces of the past that their ancestors and mine most wanted to remember: a rusty cannon and a rock covered in ants.

***

The mob strapped Hance to a horse and rode a mile or so out of town, past farms and homes and over a plank bridge, until they found a witch-hazel tree that swung out over the road. Hance was forced to stand on the roof of a buggy as a noose was fastened around his neck, fixed to a tree branch, and tightened.

The mob pulled the buggy from beneath him, and Hance became in that moment something more and less than a person. He was not just a man anymore, but a symbol: a symbol of power, of extralegal privilege, of white supremacy’s corporeal impact. But he also became a body left hanging—mutilated, denigrated. A reporter for the St. Mary’s Beacon described Hance’s body after the lynching as “a gruesome enough sight to satisfy any lover of horrors.” The Beacon reader comprehends that the true purpose of the lynching was not justice, or at least not a justice of fairness and mercy. This justice was not meant to rectify wrongdoing, but to “satisfy” the angry white men battering down the jailhouse door, the men’s white wives sleeping soundly in their beds, and their white children walking to school the morning after, who might happen upon a black body twisting in the wind, and stare.

The exact site of Hance’s lynching is still unknown, but an aide at the St. Mary’s County Historical Society directed me to the former site of the plank bridge, close to where Hance was hanged. The bridge stood near the intersection of MD-5 and Newtowne Neck Road and spanned McIntosh Run, a cool narrow creek that widens as it reaches the old Leonardtown wharf and flushes into the Potomac. The wooden bridge has since been replaced by a concrete one, which I have traveled over countless times in my life, unaware of its history. Today the intersection by the bridge features a small winery, a CVS pharmacy, and a McDonald’s.

Hance’s body was not retrieved until later that same morning, well after the sun had risen. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, about a ten-minute drive north from the old Leonardtown jail. The church has since moved to a newer building downtown, but the cemetery remains at the earlier site.

I visited this small, verdant plot of land the day after Independence Day. The cemetery sits at the end of a narrow residential road and catches the driver by surprise. There are fewer than a hundred graves at the site, and they are bisected by a dirt driveway just wide enough for a single car. At first, it seemed to me that the cemetery received few, if any, visitors. The headstones were crumbling, cracked, and coated with thick layers of moss and lichen. Most of the people buried there were born shortly before 1900 and died in the mid-20th century, although several inscriptions show birth dates prior to the Civil War and death dates as recent as 2008. St. Aloysius is not a pleasant place to visit in Maryland’s July, when nature itself seems intent on keeping us indoors. Kamikaze swarms of tiny grasshopper-like insects dove at my ears, and I swiped them away with a sweat-soaked palm.

But mourners had been there not that long ago. I knew this because a half-dozen graves, although blanketed in moss, were adorned with petite Confederate flags, freshly planted and unstained.

If Hance was buried in the cemetery’s central yard, his name was not on any of its headstones. His grave might be marked by a haphazard pile of jagged stones, or a slim stone pole leaning ten degrees off-center, or nothing. It does not seem unlikely that a black lynching victim might have been buried among the dense foliage surrounding the central yard, forever consigned to an invisible grave. That was the final tragedy visited upon Benjamin Hance: the forgetting.

***

Twenty-nine black men were murdered by white mobs in Maryland between 1877 and 1950. These lynchings occurred not only in southern Maryland, but also on the Eastern Shore, an agrarian region that lies on the Delmarva Peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and in western Maryland, which closely resembles Appalachia in landscape, politics, and speech.

But central Maryland, that well-populated tract that stretches from the Pennsylvania line down to Prince George’s County and includes Baltimore, Annapolis, and the D.C. suburbs, is not without its own lynching narratives. In the college town of Westminster, in Carroll County, a man named Townsend Cook was killed two years before Hance’s murder. Thirty miles north of Baltimore, in the town of Bel Air—which would chafe at the label “Southern”—Lewis Harris was lynched in 1900.

There were two reactions I came to expect in central Maryland when I told people I was researching local lynchings. Surprise was typical: Many people had no idea that such atrocious murders had occurred in their towns. Even the library aide at the Carroll County Historical Society seemed skeptical of my claim until we scrolled through the microfilm of one of the county’s weekly papers. We eventually reached June 6, 1885, the first publication date after Cook’s murder. The headline read plainly: “The Lynching of Cook.”

Another common reaction concerned motive. At the Carroll County Historical Society, I met a local man who was stopping by to see a new Civil War exhibit. He had tan skin with a few shadows of wrinkles, and his jeans were broken-in and loose around the calf, so that they swished when he walked. The library aide mentioned that I was studying Cook’s murder and asked if he knew of the lynching. The man said he didn’t, then asked me: “What did he do?”

That question was asked in the same tone as another, this one by a friend’s relative in Bel Air, where I was researching the Harris lynching: “Are you a Democrat?”

These questions were more straightforward than the ones I encountered at home, in southern Maryland. My grandmother, who lives nearby, would ask me how the research was going, and I would say it was going just fine. My parents, no doubt curious as to why their son was trekking back and forth to century-old crime scenes, asked me the same question separately, in their own oblique ways. The question was: What is the point of all this?

I suppose that is why I brought my father with me to Montgomery: to see the answer I did not yet know how to voice.

***

My father and I arrived in Montgomery late in the night, when the city was asleep. The next day, it seemed reluctant to wake up. A warm breeze huffed along the empty streets lined with sun-bleached sidewalks and closed storefronts. Down near the bank of the murky Alabama River, where the old Montgomery Union Station still stands, the damp fetid air lingered overhead like chemicals in a house under fumigation. I could imagine the trains departing the city from the old station, but I could not picture them ever returning.

The only signs of life to be found were confined to a six-acre block enclosed by the streets Caroline, Clayton, Holcombe, and Mildred. On Google Maps, this land still appears vacant. Since April, however, it has been home to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation’s first large-scale monument to the thousands of black victims of racial terror lynchings.

The memorial was founded by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), whose headquarters sit on Commerce Street in downtown Montgomery, sandwiched between the Hank Williams Museum and a sub shop. The EJI serves as a rallying point for combating racial and economic inequalities in the criminal justice system. The 24-year-old non-profit has sought to overturn wrongful convictions, argued against life sentences for children, and provided legal counsel for Alabamians being tried in death penalty cases.

Under the midday sun, the grounds of the memorial were stunningly bright. My father and I followed a gravel pathway past the street entrance and up the terraced mound from which the memorial seems to have sprouted. The path was well-trodden with the imprints of other visitors’ shoes. Ahead of us, an older white couple ambled by a sculpture of an enslaved mother clutching her newborn to her chest, her face contorted in anguish. Farther ahead of them was a black family, six or seven adults with a similar number of children, all of them wearing purple family reunion T-shirts. The only sound was the crunching of gravel underfoot and our soft panting breath. The hill was steeper than it looked: you had to want to reach the top to get there.

We crested the hill. The air was cooler up there; a slight breeze blew from the direction of the Alabama State Capitol, whose pristine white dome was visible from the top of the hill. The memorial was too far away from the city’s numerous Confederate monuments and landmarks for us to see them clearly—but they were there, in the distance, nonetheless.

The centerpiece of the memorial is a massive square canopy of dark gray metal with a diamond-shaped skylight in its center. Hanging from the canopy are 800 weathered steel columns. Each column represents a county (or, for areas in which lynchings were less common than in the Deep South, an entire state) and is engraved with the names and death dates of the victims who were lynched there. The columns vaguely resemble vertical coffins, and their rusted exteriors evoke different shades of scarred brown skin.

A walkway passes beneath the columns and follows the sharp turns of the canopy’s lopsided square. My father and I walked slowly along the first side of the square, searching for Maryland’s column. The columns are arranged alphabetically, first by state, then by county. The ones near the entrance rest on the ground, and the names inscribed on them are easy to read. As we rounded the first turn, the floor sloped downward, and the columns appeared to gradually rise. When we reached the second turn, they towered above our heads, and the names of the victims could hardly be made out under the shadow of the canopy. When we reached the end of the walkway, which loops back to where it begins but ends several feet lower, we stepped out from beneath the canopy and into the bright middle, where a short stone path leads to the peak of a central grassy hill. Only from that vantage point could we spy our home state’s column hanging along the structure’s inner edge.

It was hard to discern the twenty-nine names and dates engraved on Maryland’s column from this distance. A memorial aide led us to a patch of earth on the south-facing side of the property. There, lying prostrate in six orderly rows, were exact replicas of the columns hanging in the memorial’s canopy. We found Maryland’s replica column quickly. Instead of engraving Hance’s full name, the EJI opted to use his nickname, “Ben.”

These replicas are meant to be claimed by their respective counties and states and installed as local monuments. The EJI will begin the process of vetting and fulfilling requests in 2019, and as the columns begin to be claimed, it will be easy to tell which localities have reckoned with their histories of racial violence. The columns of those communities that have not will be trapped in limbo, exposed both to the elements and the public’s gaze, until they are claimed.

The grounds were quiet, not in the abandoned way that downtown was, but respectfully quiet, cathedral quiet. The reflections of the visitors were interrupted only by the fathers in family reunion T-shirts calling after their children, and by the occasional plane passing overhead on its way to Montgomery Regional. My father was regarding a sculpture of ten or so people whose torsos and legs were encased in a stone block but whose arms were raised above their heads. They looked as if they were drowning, or as if they were presenting their empty hands to the viewer to prove they were unarmed. It was difficult to gauge the mood of my father, a stony man by nature. He met the figures’ level gazes and seemed to be deep in thought about a type of history that neither he, nor I, had ever been taught in school.

After visiting the memorial, my father and I ordered an Uber to the corner of Washington Avenue and Union Street. Tourist sites aren’t open late on weekends in Montgomery, and we arrived at the First White House of the Confederacy just an hour before it closed. The docent, a tall white man wearing a pastel polo shirt and pleated pants, spoke with the upbeat tone of a First Lady giving a tour of the West Wing. Here we have the Davis family Bible. And here we’ve hung up Mr. and Mrs. Davis’ portraits. And here we can all see Mrs. Davis’ china (very fragile!).

The house is small and rather unmemorable for a presidential mansion, save an upstairs room lined with a dozen or so glass display cases. These cases house war memos, cockades, .58 caliber “Minie-ball” bullets, multiple Southern Crosses of Honor, Jefferson Davis’ old tobacco pipe, transcripts of letters between Davis and other Confederate leaders, a set of Turkish coffee cups, a golden pen, Mrs. Davis’ cherished  gray-and-white cameo necklace, and a portion of the Confederate bunting that lay over Davis’ casket while his body was lying in state. The bunting was wrinkled and tattered and fraying at every seam, and over the past one hundred and thirty years, the red and blue dyes of the fabric had muted into nearly the same shade of gray. My father and I had been examining the memorabilia for just a few minutes when he unexpectedly left the room, as if to say: There is not much I need to see here.

Early the next morning we checked out of our hotel, loaded up the Impala, and hit the road home. We took I-85 north out of Montgomery and toward Atlanta, where we merged onto I-20. As my father drove, I thought of the threadbare bunting on display in the Davis family’s former home. I took comfort in the fact that certain memories and allegiances will always fade. I noticed on the return trip that nearly every county we drove through had a column waiting for it in Montgomery, and I wondered nervously how many would be claimed next year.

About four hours later, we approached the exit for I-95. We passed a sign telling us that Florence County, South Carolina, was just eight miles away. “Sounds familiar,” I said. I remembered seeing Florence’s column, along with the other 34 belonging to South Carolina, at the memorial. My father, characteristically silent, just nodded. He remembered it, too.