In Maryland, a memorial for two lynching victims reveals how America is grappling with its history of racial terror. (2/2/22)
Image: The lynching of James Reed, in Crisfield, Maryland, on July 28, 1907, for the alleged murder of the police officer John H. Daugherty. This image was modified for The Atlantic by the artist Ken Gonzales-Day, whose technique, as showcased in his “Erased Lynchings” project, is to digitally remove the victim and rope from historical photographs of lynchings. By erasing the victims’ bodies, Gonzales-Day pushes the viewer to focus on the crowd and, by proxy, the racism and bias that were foundational to these acts of violence. (Digital alteration by Ken Gonzales-Day for The Atlantic. Source: Crisfield Times.)
Under a large white tent on a warm Sunday in early autumn, a group of residents in Montgomery County, Maryland, gathered at Welsh Park in the town of Rockville. A crescendo of gospel hymns hung above the crowd before falling gently over us like a warm bedsheet. A small group of children squealed from a playground in the distance. We were there to remember the lives of two Black men who had been lynched in the county more than a century ago. This is the county where I live. Before this event I did not know these men’s names, but now I do.
Estimates vary widely, but according to the Equal Justice Initiative, from 1865 to 1950 nearly 6,500 Black Americans were lynched in the United States. Two of those men were Sidney Randolph and John Diggs-Dorsey.
Two local students shared the stories of Randolph’s and Diggs-Dorsey’s murders. The audience listened attentively.
On May 25, 1896, Randolph was walking down the road between Gaithersburg and Hunting Hill when two white men, cousins Frank Ward and John Garrett, pulled up next to him and started asking questions about where he was going and what he had been doing. Randolph wasn’t originally from the area—he said that he had been born and raised in Georgia—but he knew that two white men approaching you on horseback, unsolicited, was a recipe for trouble. An itinerant worker who had slept in a barn the night before, Randolph thought the men were attempting to arrest him for trespassing or vagrancy. So Randolph ran, and the two cousins followed. “They looked so mad they scared me,” Randolph said, according to The Baltimore Sun, “and I tried to get away and they shot me and rode their horses over me.” Randolph was struck in the hand, and the two men tied him up at gunpoint and brought him to the county jail.
The two men were part of a group of vigilantes who had been looking for a man who had assaulted a white family, the Buxtons, with the back of an ax in Gaithersburg. A neighbor said he had seen a Black man flee the home, and white residents began scouring the area for the alleged assailant. Randolph and another man, George Neale, were arrested. Initially, Richard Buxton, the patriarch of the assailed family and the recently elected town commissioner, wasn’t sure that Randolph had committed the crime. But two weeks later, after Buxton’s 7-year-old daughter died from the wounds, Buxton changed his story and said that Randolph definitely was the person who’d assaulted his family and killed his daughter. Neale was cleared of all charges and released. Randolph was held. The sheriff, fearful that a mob might act before a grand-jury trial could begin, is said to have moved Randolph to a different location each night. But in the early morning of July 4, the mob found him.
Two dozen or three dozen men, their faces hidden behind red handkerchiefs, overpowered the guards, pulled Randolph into the street, struck him in the head, and placed him in a wagon that took off down Darnestown Road. They came to a stop at a chestnut tree at the edge of a local farm and pulled Randolph out of the wagon. The mob wrapped a noose around the man’s neck, threw the rope over the tree, and hauled Randolph’s body off the ground. He stirred and struggled, then stopped. No one was charged with Randolph’s murder and his body was buried in an unmarked grave in the pauper’s cemetery of the local almshouse. Years later, the Montgomery County Detention Center would be built on part of the almshouse site.
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