Thursday, October 4, 2007

A Grim Legacy Explored: Author Discusses History of Eastern Shore Lynchings

Chestertown, MD — Civil rights lawyer and scholar Sherrilyn Ifill, author of the acclaimed new book On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century (Beacon Books, 2007), will explore the history of lynching on the Eastern Shore with a lecture/booksigning at the Bethel AME Church on Tuesday, October 16, at 7:30 p.m.

Professor Ifill's talk, sponsored by Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, will focus on how lynching and the violent climate surrounding lynching produced a decades-long legacy of silence, distrust and racial division. She also will lead an open discussion of how communities like those in Kent County—the site of a lynching and near-lynching in 1892 and 1931, respectively -- can use techniques like those used in South Africa's truth and reconciliation process to promote healing.

Sherrilyn Ifill is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland School of Law, and a nationally recognized advocate for civil rights, voting rights, and judicial diversity. She is a frequent guest on WYPR's "The Mark Steiner Show," where she offers commentary on race and the law, and a regular op-ed contributor to the Baltimore Sun and the AFRO-American. Prior to joining the University of Maryland faculty, she litigated voting rights cases for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.

Ifill first learned of the Eastern Shore's history of lynching from clients she represented in a Wicomico County discrimination suit, African-Americans unfairly affected by state highway siting decisions. Recognizing the link between contemporary inequalities and the long shadow of these grisly events, she turned her attention to bringing these stories back into the public eye.

Racial terrorism did not bypass Kent County. On May 17, 1892, an angry mob dragged 24-year-old James Taylor from a Chestertown jail cell and lynched him across the street from the Kent County Courthouse, leaving his body to dangle from a maple tree for an hour, spotlighted by a lantern.

Taylor's death came on the heels of the murder of a Millington doctor and subsequent arrest of 11 black suspects, events that set racial tensions in the county boiling. When the young daughter of a white Kennedyville farmer accused her father's hired hand of sexual assault, vigilantes leapt into action. No jury ever considered the evidence against Taylor.

Nearly forty years after the lynching of Taylor, a mob again demanded blood in November 1931, fanning out across four counties in pursuit of 27-year-old George Davis. Seeking a job opportunity, Davis had entered his former employers' residence and frightened the lady of the house; attempted criminal assault charges ensued. The night after his arrest, 700 angry men assembled outside the Chestertown jail; the group's leader openly carried a rope. Only a quick response on part of the Kent County Sheriff saved Davis's life.

Sherrilyn Ifill's talk is cosponsored by Washington College's Center for the Study of Black Culture, the Chester Valley Ministers' Association, Mt. Olive AME Church, Janes United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalists of the Chester River, and the African American Schoolhouse Museum & Council.

"This is not a 'black' story or a 'white' one, but a history relevant to every resident of Kent County: black, white, elderly, young, the lifelong resident and the newcomer alike," said Jill Ogline, Associate Director of the C.V. Starr Center. "We hope to lay the foundation for an ongoing conversation on lynching's legacy, looking toward the goals of restorative justice and community reconciliation."

Established in 2000 with a grant from the New York-based Starr Foundation, the C.V. Starr Center explores our nation's history—and particularly the legacy of its Founding era—in innovative ways. Through educational programs, scholarship, and public outreach, and especially by supporting and fostering the art of written history, the Starr Center seeks to bridge the divide between past and present, and between the academic world and the public at large. From its base in the circa-1746 Custom House along Chestertown's colonial waterfront, the Center also serves as a portal onto a world of opportunities for Washington College students. Its guiding principle is that now more than ever, a wider understanding of our shared past is fundamental to the continuing success of America's democratic experiment.

Admission to the October 16 event is free and open to the public. For more information, call 410-810-7157.

October 4, 2007

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