Posted by: beachchairandabook | March 1, 2016

The Last Lynching in Maryland : A Personal Account

armwoodb

(Photo courtesy of the Archives of Maryland, Biographical Series)

In 1933 my mother,then Marie Elise Johnson, was a student at Princess Anne Academy, a school established in 1886 under the auspices of the Delaware Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Academy was located in Princess Anne; Somerset County, Maryland. Later it became University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, a Historically Black University and College (HBCU). If you’ve read my earlier posts, you’ll remember that she owned priceless photos and shared stories of 1930s life at the school. I had never heard the one she told me that day. “I waited until you were older,” she explained.

What follows is her recollection of the events of October and November 1933. In October that year a black man was arrested for attacking a white woman. Local authorities, fearing vigilante justice, had him moved to a Baltimore jail until he could stand trial. For some unknown reason, he was sent straight back to Princess Anne. That decision sent the man to his death.

According to my mother, the students were in Chapel when they learned of the lynching. She described their fear, and with good reason; this was the 1930s Eastern Shore where Jim Crow reigned supreme. They were an all-black campus with an angry, hate-filled mob nearby, and their principal, Mr. Thomas Kiah, was away from school on business. That night, according to my mother, instead of sending them to their dorms, a teacher gathered all the girls and kept them in her on-campus lodgings throughout the night.

I never forgot that story. Just last week, while searching through a box of old pictures, I found a few notes she had written when she was in her early 80s, in an attempt to keep both her memory and history alive. The discovery prompted me to do some research of my own. Over the years, a story can change in the telling. This one may be no different. What I found matched most of her recollections.

The lynching victim was George Armwood. He was a laborer who had been hired out for work since the age of five; a man described as “feeble.” He was accused of raping and robbing Mrs. Mary Denston, an elderly white woman. When Armwood was taken to Baltimore, Maryland’s Governor Ritchie advised State’s Attorney John Robins and Circuit Court Judge Robert Duer to keep him there. But it was not to be.

According to reports, for some misguided reason, two Somerset County police officers brought Armwood back to Princess Anne. The day of Armwood’s unfortunate return, a mob stormed the jail. In the first of the horrors Armwood suffered, his ear was cut off. He was dragged through the streets, strung up near Judge Duer’s property, beaten, kicked and lynched. In a last act of triumphant barbarism, the mob doused Armwood’s lifeless body with gasoline and tossed it on a bonfire. Later his charred remains were thrown in a nearby lumber yard.  Some newspapers referred to the lynching as a demonstration. Not so the Baltimore Sun. Legendary journalist H.R Mencken, writing for the paper, described the culture that could condone such acts as “sliding out of Maryland and into the orbit of Arkansas and Tennessee, Mississippi and the more flea-bitten half of Virginia.” Needless to say, the paper lost popularity with certain Eastern Shore readers.

As I read on, I found more that compared with my mother’s account. In November, a month after Armwood’s lynching, Governor Ritchie sent the National Guard to arrest those responsible for the crime. Four of the nine suspects were taken to the National Guard Armory. Again a mob gathered. In the chaos and confusion, a fire alarm was set off. Could this be the fire alarm she remembered or did an alarm also sound the night Armwood was lynched and burned?

Instead of a blaze, the responding firemen were met with a violent mob intent on freeing the men they considered heroes. To keep crowd at bay, firefighters turned their hoses on the crowd. Ironically, it was a scene that would play out many times over in years to come, except the “unruly mob” would be demonstrators marching for justice and equality; the exact opposite of what took place in October 1933.

My mother may not have known that she was a witness, of sorts, to what was considered the  last lynching in the state of Maryland. There is however, an earlier Eastern Shore lynching I have to investigate. According to the stories handed down on the paternal side of my family, my great-grandfather was lynched somewhere in or near the town where I grew up. His crime – having a relationship with a white woman and with her, giving life to the child that would become my grandmother.

 

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Responses

  1. I remember you showing us these places on our tours of the area.


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