By Angela Mecca
The Howard Center For Investigative Journalism
ANNAPOLIS — On a typical day in downtown Annapolis, tourists fill the brightly adorned curio and clothing shops that line Main Street, squeezed in between fudge stores, seafood restaurants and other eateries.
Pricey sailboats and power yachts bob gently in their slips beside the crowds strolling the watery inlet residents call “Ego Alley,” nicknamed for the boaters who like to cruise the area to show off their vessels.
Just about a half-mile away from the city’s famous harbor is Calvert Street, home to a sobering historical marker.
One side reads “Lynching In America.” On the other is “Lynching In Anne Arundel County.”
“Between 1875 and 1911, racial terror lynchings of African Americans by white mobs created a legacy of violence, intimidation, and injustice that has not previously been acknowledged,” the marker reads. “At least five racial terror lynchings took place in Anne Arundel County, traumatizing the black community.”
The marker was erected in 2019 by the Equal Justice Initiative, a national organization working to end mass incarceration and protect human rights, and Connecting the Dots, an Anne Arundel County coalition that works on racial-justice issues.
A year later, The Capital, the city’s leading newspaper, delivered its own reckoning on the city’s history of racial terror. The paper is operated by Capital Gazette Communications, a company that has been around for nearly 300 years and oversees local newspapers in Maryland such as the Maryland Gazette and The Bowie Blade-News.
“Our Say: The Capital helped racism flourish in Annapolis. We can do better,” the headline of a June 2020 Capital editorial read.
The city of Annapolis, Maryland’s capital and home of the U.S. Naval Academy, has embraced the need for accountability in facing its murderous and bigoted past.
Within the past several years, citizens, elected officials, activists, community leaders and the local newspaper in Annapolis have taken actions to address the city’s racist history.
In some ways, their efforts could act as an example, as it is one of the few American communities that has reckoned with its legacy of lynching and racial terror.
“It’s important for communities to recognize the history and seek truth, especially if we expect to be able to heal and move forward,” said Monica Lindsey, co-chair and founder of Connecting the Dots, which helped establish the marker on Calvert Street and a second historical marker at the Severna Park Library in June 2021.
Annapolis is facing its complicity in the lynchings of men such as Henry Davis, George Briscoe, Wright Smith and King Johnson, and the racial terror that ensued.
Davis was lynched in Annapolis on Dec. 21, 1906, state records show. Davis was taken from jail by a mob, hanged and shot several times, according to Maryland State Archives, which has newspaper records of the events. He had been jailed for allegedly assaulting a white woman, the state archives show.
The headline in The Evening Capital on Dec. 21, 1906, read, “THE ASSAULT ON WOMAN AVENGED — DAVIS DRAGGED FROM JAIL AND LYNCHED — MOB RIDDLED NEGRO RAVISHER WITH BULLETS.”
Maryland Gov. Edwin Warfield was sleeping 400 yards away when Davis was taken from the jail and lynched, according to a Dec. 22, 1906, article from The Sun newspaper in Baltimore.
Despite multiple shots fired, “The Governor said that the work must have been done very quietly or that he had slept very soundly, as he had all the windows up in his room, and therefore should have been able to hear any unusual noise,” The Sun reported.
The Evening Capital reported that a photograph of Davis’ bullet-riddled body was made into postcards, which were sold throughout the country. The paper called the postcards “gruesome,” saying, “the picture is a horrible sight,” but the article did not condemn the lynching itself, nor call for the assailants to be arrested.
Media coverage from white-owned publications such as The Evening Capital — an early incarnation of what is now The Capital — often covered the incidents by using pro-lynching rhetoric.
Briscoe was lynched on Nov. 26, 1884. He was suspected of being involved in a series of robberies, according to state archives. Briscoe was being brought to the city jail when a group of men intercepted the deputy sheriffs who were transporting him. The deputies ran away, and Briscoe was killed, according to the records.
On Nov. 29, 1884, The Evening Capital wrote the incident “may be condemned by some, yet under all the circumstances, it was, perhaps, the only way to rid a community of so desperate a character as this negro had proved himself to be.”
The news article continued, “While we do not approve of lynch law, yet there are some instances where it is justifiable.”
Rick Hutzell, the former editor of Capital Gazette Communications, wrote the editorial apologizing for The Capital’s role in aiding the region’s history of racism. Hutzell said his predecessors at The Capital of about 100 years ago were complicit in incidents of racial terror to an extent.
“I mean, I don’t think you can find in there any language where they say, ‘Go get them,’ but they came pretty damn close,” Hutzell, 63, said. “And so, to a certain effect, they acted as cheerleaders.”
Black-owned newspapers’ coverage during the period served as a counterpoint to white-owned media.
The Richmond Planet, a Black-owned publication founded in 1882 that merged with the Richmond branch of The Afro-American newspaper in 1938, also covered the lynching of Davis. The Dec. 29, 1906, headline read, “NEGRO LYNCHED AT ANNAPOLIS,” with further subheadings such as, “Taken From Jail by Mob, Hanged and Riddled With Bullets.”
The text did not use words that justified lynchings as seen in white-owned publications.
The Afro-American also documented some lynchings in Annapolis.
In December 1911, Johnson was taken from a jail cell, where he awaited trial for allegedly killing a blacksmith during an argument, state records show. He was beaten over the head, dragged almost 200 yards and shot four times, according to news reports in the state archives.
The Afro-American and The Evening Capital both covered the incident, reporting the jail was unguarded when Johnson was taken. The Evening Capital covered the killing as an isolated incident, while the headline in The Afro-American on Dec. 30, 1911, highlighted a trend of racial violence, saying, “THE WAVE OF LYNCHING STRIKES MARYLAND.”
The Afro-American highlighted incidents of racial terror in its coverage. The newspaper published a story after the lynching of Wright Smith, who was killed in October 1898 while awaiting trial after being accused of assaulting a white woman, according to state records. The article in The Afro-American described the incident and called upon the Republican Gov. Lloyd Lowndes Jr. and Republicans in the state legislature, members of the political party supported overwhelmingly by African Americans after the Civil War, to respond to it as an act of racial violence.
The article noted the power of Black political influence in the state, saying, “The supremacy of this party in Maryland is conditioned upon the faithful adhesion of about fifty thousand colored voters.”
It also said, “The lynching of Wright Smith, last week, right under the dome of the Capitol at Annapolis is a disgrace to the State of Maryland.”
Jake Oliver, 76, chairman of the board and publisher for The Afro-American from 1984 to 2018, said the newspaper had a special role.
“Historically, The Afro was the community newspaper, particularly in the early days and at the turn of the 20th century, when the Black community really had no voice,” Oliver said.
That role continues today, he said.
“In the white press, there is not a sensitivity to the subtle things, which are otherwise not too subtle to the Black community,” Oliver said. “The Afro and all Black press’ role, indeed their duty, is to inform the Black community of the injustices that the white community really never did recognize.”
Charles Chavis, an assistant professor of history and conflict resolution at George Mason University, has spent years researching injustices and incidents of racial violence.
While Maryland may not be considered a part of the deep South, its history is not immune to racial terror, Chavis, 31, said.
“Racism was an American problem, and it did not stop at the Mason-Dixon Line, and it did not stop in border states,” said Chavis, whose upcoming book focuses on the 1931 lynching of 23-year-old Matthew Williams on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the politics of racism in Maryland.
Carl Snowden, former civil rights director at the office of the Maryland attorney general, is one of the leaders in the state encouraging its historical reckoning.
Snowden has spent most of his career advocating for civil rights. He currently serves as convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders and is the president of Carl Snowden & Associates, a private consulting firm that specializes in civil rights issues.
But as a child in Anne Arundel County, he witnessed racial injustice that he said is part of the racial terror the lynchings perpetuated. It was one August day, while playing with his good friend, Tommy, said Snowden, now 68.
“I used to see Tommy’s father — a very strong man,” Snowden said. “Tommy loved his father, and Tommy would often tell me that his father was stronger than my father and could beat my father. And at one point, he even said his father was so strong that he could beat Superman.”
That day, Tommy’s father’s boss came to where Tommy and his family lived, Snowden said. Tommy’s father worked for him as a sharecropper, he said. The man was chewing tobacco angrily, and he was walking in a way that let Snowden know something was wrong, he said.
Snowden and Tommy hid in some bushes near Tommy’s house. They watched as Tommy’s father’s boss struck him, spit at him and yelled at him to either work or get off his property, he said.
Tommy’s father fell, and then did something Snowden has never forgotten. Tommy’s father apologized and politely asked his boss, the man who had just struck and spat upon him, not to fire him, Snowden said.
“That moment, the world just came to a halt,” he said. “Because I knew what Tommy’s father was capable of doing, I knew how strong Tommy’s father was.”
Snowden ran to his mother to tell her what happened, he said, and she tried to persuade him “not to be bitter.” But that day changed him.
“I’d witnessed with my own eyes, not just a man being humiliated in front of his wife, embarrassed in front of his son and his son’s best friend; I saw racism, raw and unvarnished,” Snowden said. “I remember saying to myself, remember I’m 5 or 6, as a kid, I’ll never let anybody do that to me, ever.”
Even today, Snowden said, he is often reminded of the incident, and he wonders what became of Tommy.
“Is he one of those numbers — Black men who wound up going to prison … the trauma caused him such pain?” Snowden said. “I’m very much of the opinion that race and racism does play a huge factor in people, and that you have to be able to address those issues. They don’t go away.”
City officials took up the issue of Annapolis’ history of racial terror three years ago. Alderwoman Elly Tierney wrote a resolution with Alderwoman Rhonda Pindell Charles acknowledging and apologizing for the city’s history of lynchings and racial injustice.
The city had considered a formal apology more than 100 years earlier, but a similar 1898 proposal failed.
Tierney, 61, said she was motivated to issue the apology in 2018 after speaking with Snowden and learning about the lynching of Davis.
“This is our own ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ story,” said Tierney, referring to the famous book in which a Black man was nearly lynched for allegedly raping a white woman and then was wrongfully convicted of the charges after it was proved in court the woman lied about the incident. “So, I was really intrigued by it.”
After reading the 1898 resolution, Tierney said she felt she “had to redeem” the city council.
Five other city council members, including Mayor Gavin Buckley, signed the legislation as co-sponsors. It passed on June 18, 2018.
The resolution expresses support for the Equal Justice Initiative in its endeavors to recognize and commemorate past atrocities. But to remediate previous harm to the Black community, Tierney said, efforts shouldn’t stop at acknowledgment.
“With human beings, you really can’t move forward on anything until you acknowledge, you know, that you have a problem,” Tierney said. “It does beg the question, ‘Now what? What do we do?’ But it’s a huge step.”
Hutzell said The Capital was considering its own apology for years.
“I’d known for a while that the paper had a questionable role in some of what was going on then,” Hutzell said.
Conversations about the history of the paper were disrupted after a gunman killed five staff members in the publication’s newsroom on June 28, 2018, just 10 days after the city council’s resolution.
The coronavirus pandemic and the closing of The Capital’s newsroom in 2020 disrupted the paper’s operations even further, Hutzell said. But the protests over the murder of George Floyd and other police shootings that summer encouraged The Capital to move forward with discussions about past and present racial coverage, he said, eventually leading to the publication of the editorial.
The editorial noted the paper’s coverage of the lynching of Davis, saying, “There was no demand for justice in these pages, no effort to find the truth,” and, “We are sorry for what has come before and know that we still can do better.”
The editorial said The Capital has made efforts to increase discussions about equity and has encouraged diversity. While diversity in hiring has always been a goal, Hutzell said, the publication has done more in the past five years to ensure the makeup of the newsroom reflects the community it serves.
Still, he said, there’s more work to do.
“It’s very easy to, you know, look at mistakes people made, bad decisions, being on the wrong side and say, you know, I would have done something different,” Hutzell said. “I think that the only thing you can do is to acknowledge the wrong that was done and try and do better.”