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On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the…

On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the…

by Sherrilyn A. Ifill

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Everything happens somewhere.

In 1933, in the small town of Princess Anne on the Lower Eastern Shore of the state of Maryland, hundreds of local citizens stormed the county jail, seizing and stabbing George Armwood (a black man accused of attacking a white woman) before dragging him down the stairs, his head thumping on every step. The crowd outside joined in kicking, punching, and mutilating the body of the unconscious man. Insensate but probably still alive, Armwood was then dragged through the streets, hung from a tree, and beaten with sticks. The white mob then carried Armwood’s body to the corner of Prince and William streets, drenched him in gasoline, and set him on fire. His charred body was displayed, for more than a day, in a lumberyard near the Washington Hotel.

As Sherrlyn Ifill reports, “Black residents, particularly children on their way to school, saw Armwood’s body as it lay in the lumberyard on that Thursday morning.” Seventy years later, one of those children recalled the day, saying “What could you do? You went on to school.”

I have walked down Prince and William streets. I know well the white facade of the self-consciously historical Washington Hotel, which architecturally asserts pride in its continuity with the past. I wonder if that’s the same lumberyard, just across the alley. The first time I walked through the town, the nearest to the rural property to which I had just moved, I felt decidedly uneasy. Something about the forced and not nearly successful historical charm created an atmosphere of smothering silence. Without knowing anything of the incident just recounted, I said to my companion, “Something awful happened here.” For some reason, I felt compelled to whisper.

We often use the word “unspeakable” when we cannot find words to explain or express our repugnance for extreme or sexualized violence. But the word is literally true for lynching, as the details of these community orgies tend to become literally unspeakable in the public spaces where they actually happened, with white perpetrators and eye-witnesses pretending innocent unawareness and black community members not daring to speak of what they know except to each other.

And yet the howls of the mobs and the cut-off cries of their victims reverberate for generations, perhaps even more strongly because they are neither voiced nor acknowledged in the public life of the community. In On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Twenty-First Century Lynching, law professor Sherrilyn Ifill traces the reverberations of late-date lynchings in three Eastern Shore communities, thereby doing a real service to those communities while at the same time demonstrating her thesis that, because every lynching was a local act, perpetrated by local whites in order to terrorize local people of color, only truly local restorative justice processes — whether these include conversations, reparations, or public commemorations — can begin to mitigate the ongoing damage.

Ifill writes with remarkable empathy and emotional insight for one whose training is in law rather than psychology. Her words ring true for me both as a psychologist and as a white anti-racist activist who stumbled unwittingly into what felt like a race-relations time-warp when moving to the Eastern Shore. Her depictions and explanations of both the prideful insularity of local whites and the especially deep distrust of whites by local African Americans helped me to retroactively understand dynamics that, as an outsider to both communities, I could perceive but not explain. She’s undoubtedly right that such local injuries cannot be healed by “national conversations” or other non-local remedies.

Everything happens somewhere. Every one of the almost five thousand lynchings perpetrated in the United States between 1885 and 1960 happened somewhere in particular and probably still resonates, in its own particular way, in that particular place. Ifill offers a strategy for healing places.

Reviewed by pattrice jones ( )
  PoliticalMediaReview | Aug 4, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0807009873, Hardcover)

Nearly 5,000 black Americans were lynched between 1890 and 1960. Over forty years later, Sherrilyn Ifill’s On the Courthouse Lawn examines the numerous ways that this racial trauma still resounds across the United States. While the lynchings and their immediate aftermath were devastating, the little-known contemporary consequences, such as the marginalization of political and economic development for black Americans, are equally pernicious.

On the Courthouse Lawn investigates how the lynchings implicated average white citizens, some of whom actively participated in the violence, while many others witnessed the lynchings but did nothing to stop them. Ifill observes that this history of complicity has become embedded in the social and cultural fabric of local communities, who either supported, condoned, or ignored the violence. She traces the lingering effects of two lynchings in Maryland to illustrate how ubiquitous this history is and issues a clarion call for American communities with histories of racial violence to be proactive in facing this legacy today.

Inspired by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as by techniques of restorative justice, Ifill provides concrete ideas to help communities heal, including placing gravestones on the unmarked burial sites of lynching victims, issuing public apologies, establishing mandatory school programs on the local history of lynching, financially compensating those whose family homes or businesses were destroyed in the aftermath of lynching, and creating commemorative public spaces. Because the contemporary effects of racial violence are experienced most intensely in local communities, Ifill argues that reconciliation and reparation efforts must also be locally based in order to bring both black and white Americans together in an efficacious dialogue.

A landmark book, On the Courthouse Lawn is a much-needed and urgent road map for communities finally confronting lynching’s long shadow by embracing pragmatic reconciliation and reparation efforts.

“Professor Ifill has written a sobering and eye-opening book on one of America’s darkest secrets. On the Courthouse Lawn offers a compelling examination of lynchings and describes the failure of people and institutions to adequately address one of America’s tragedies. Racial amnesia would suggest we forget this history. Professor Ifill assures us that we cannot—and should not—forget it. This is a must read for anyone willing to examine our history carefully and learn from it.” —Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Jesse Climenko Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice

“On the Courthouse Lawn is an elegantly written and persuasively argued case for local communities to confront their history of lynching and racial violence as a means of healing race relations. Explaining how Truth and Reconciliation worked in South Africa, Ifill explores the possibilities and offers concrete advice on how it could be widely employed in the United States. It is certainly worth trying.” —Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of History, University of Pennsylvania

“In calm, objective but no less moving detail, Sherrilyn Ifill’s book provides the stories that illuminate the photographs and postcards of lynchings, the punishment meted out to some 5,000 black people deemed guilty without trial for matters large and small during the first half of the twentieth century. Too late for justice for the victims of lynch law, Professor Ifill urges that an American version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission could bring long-denied acknowledgment to whites and a measure of consolation to blacks.” —Derrick Bell, author of Faces at the Bottom of the Well and Ethical Ambition

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:41 -0400)

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