Dozens of community members gathered on a patch of land across from the Port of Leonardtown Winery on Friday. It was the same land where Benjamin Hance, a 22-year-old African American man, was lynched in 1887.
A ceremony was held Nov. 1, Maryland’s Emancipation Day, to not only commemorate Hance, but to participate in the Soil Collection Ceremony — an event that’s part of a national project, hosted by the racial equality group Equal Justice Initiative, to collect the dirt of the land where documented lynchings took place. Lynchings were typically done by a mob and resulted in a hanging; the Equal Justice Initiative defines lynchings a “violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials.”
Kyrone Davis, a professor at George Mason University, Florida Institute of Technology and Webster University and a speaker at Friday’s event, called the lynching “legal terrorism” and spoke about the affects of racism today.
“If people that look like me decided to fight terrorism with terrorism, there would be a Civil War every generation,” he said. “Dr. Cornel West [a philosopher] says often to our vanilla brothers and sisters, that anytime you see an African American, you should give them a standing ovation.”
He added if African Americans had not gone high as society went low, America would be a fascist society.
He encouraged the audience to acknowledge the past or it could be repeated. “For it is our differences that is our greatest assets,” Davis added.
Karen Stone, St. Mary’s museum division manager, gave a brief history of why slaves in Maryland were not emancipated until November 1864, nearly two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation only applied to slaves in the rebellion states, which Maryland was not part of.
Sheriff Tim Cameron (R), Janice Walthour of St. Mary’s NAACP and students from St. Mary’s Ryken High School’s Black Student Union read the events that led to Hance’s death 132 years ago.
Hance was accused of assaulting Alice Bailey, daughter of the county’s sheriff at the time, while she was walking toward Stone’s Wharf. He supposedly asked for directions, and then was accused of making several indecent proposals to Bailey, allegedly throwing her to the ground, according to a Maryland State Archives report.
Hance was arrested and taken to the Leonardtown jail to await his trial. Around 2 a.m. on June 17, 1887, a group of men broke down the jail door and spent between 30 and 40 minutes breaking down Hance’s cell before the 22-year-old complied to go with them, according to C. John Clements’ testimony, the guard on duty that morning. He later said in court that he could not report the incident right away because the lynchers held him at gunpoint after Hance was taken. He did not receive any charges.
Hance was taken to the tree next to what is now the John Hanson Briscoe Circuit Courthouse to be hanged but was stopped by Dr. John T. Spalding, who told them the sight of hanging Hance in front of his home would worsen his sick wife’s health. The Maryland archives reports the mob took Hance to the outskirts of town and tied him to the limb of a witch hazel tree that hung over the road.
Reports state before Hance was hung, the lynchers asked if he was guilty. The men claimed Hance admitted to the guilt and said he deserved to be hanged. They believed his hanging would save Bailey the embarrassment of testifying during Hance’s trial.
Multiple witnesses testified they saw several citizens in the lynch mob, including the sheriff, however, no report was found on the outcome of the testimony. Some citizens believe the reports were ignored to protect the members of the mob.
The remains of Hance are buried in the old St. Aloysius cemetery in Leonardtown. Hance was believed to be a servant to Henry Mattingly, and a parishioner of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bushwood or St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Leonardtown.
St. Mary’s Ryken students read a poem called “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol, performed a dance and sang “On Eagle’s Wings” during the ceremony. Toward the end, a few county officials took turns shoveling soil into two jars, followed by members of the community who used their hands.
One jar will be sent to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., and the other will circulate around the county, lent to different community groups like libraries, museums and churches.
Information about 39 known lynchings in Maryland from the 1860s through the 1930s is available on the Maryland archives website at http://slavery.msa.maryland.gov/html/casestudies/judge_lynch.html.