Catholic high school students join ceremony remembering St. Mary’s County lynching victim
Nov 5, 2019
In the dark of night on June 17, 1887, a mob lynched Benjamin Hance, hanging the 22-year-old African American man from the branch of a witch-hazel tree near the road to Newtown Neck in Leonardtown, Maryland.
Hance, a Catholic who worked on an oyster boat, had been accused of making an “improper proposal” to a white woman and attempting to attack her. Three weeks after he had been jailed, but before he had gone to trial, the mob stormed the jail house, holding the jailer at gunpoint as they broke down the door with axes. Then they tied Hance up and led him away on horseback. The coroner’s report later noted that a rope with a hangman’s knot had been placed around Hance’s neck.
On Nov. 1, 2019, a crowd of about 140 people gathered at that site, this time in the light of day, for a solemn ceremony to remember him and to commit themselves to working for racial justice.
“It’s important to acknowledge this history and that it happened. It’s important to learn from it so we don’t repeat the same mistakes from the past,” said Juliana Oladipo, one of about 50 students from nearby St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Leonardtown who attended the ceremony at the Port of Leonardtown Winery Park.
That point was echoed by Jesse Harris Jr., a fellow member of Ryken’s junior class and of its Black Student Union, who said acknowledging that tragic event also involved recognizing the need for people to “walk forward in the future” together.
St. Mary’s Ryken students took turns reading a summary of the events surrounding Hance’s death, and they also read a poem by Abel Meeropol about the horror of lynching, “Strange Fruit,” with dancers from the school performing an original dance that they had choreographed after researching the issue. “Strange Fruit” was a well-known song by the African American jazz singer Billie Holiday. Also at the ceremony, members of Ryken’s choral group sang “On Eagle’s Wings” and led the singing of the closing song, “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
Noting the importance of the students’ participation in the ceremony, Dr. Catherine Bowes, Ryken’s principal, said, “Pope Francis said to kids, ‘You are the now of God.’ This is one way we can be the ‘now of God.’… In our everyday lives, we stand up for justice and peace.”
Karen Stone, the manager of the St. Mary’s County Museum Division, offered a welcome on behalf of the many community groups that partnered on the event. She noted it was held on Nov. 1, Maryland Emancipation Day, the day in 1864 when the state adopted its new constitution that freed all those in bondage within its boundaries.
“Mr. Hance was accused of a crime but never received a fair investigation or trail,” she said, adding, “…Showing complete disregard for the legal system, the mob ended Mr. Hance’s life and was never held accountable for doing so.”
St. Mary’s County Sheriff Timothy Cameron, who joined the St. Mary’s Ryken students in reading an account of Hance’s lynching, said before the ceremony, “Mr. Hance was lynched without due process. We are certainly a country of laws now.” He added, “It’s important to memorialize this, to ensure this is never repeated.”
Also reading the narration during the ceremony was Dr. Janice Walthour from the St. Mary’s County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who noted the jailer and his wife identified members of the mob to a jury that rendered no verdict and declined to ask the state to charge anyone for the lynching.
“Benjamin Hance was one of at least 28 African American victims of racial terror lynching killed in Maryland between 1877 and 1950 and is the only known documented victim in St. Mary’s County,” she said in concluding the narrative.
The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,400 lynchings of black people in the United States during that time frame. That story is documented in the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice which opened in 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama and includes 800 steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a lynching occurred, each inscribed with victims’ names.
During the Nov. 1 ceremony in Southern Maryland, two jars labeled with Benjamin Hance’s name were filled with handfuls of soil from the site, with one jar going to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the other jar will stay in the county as part of a traveling exhibit to educate local citizens, visitors and students about that part of the nation’s and state’s history.
“By remembering them, we can remember where we come from, but also look to the future about where we ought to go,” Stone said before the ceremony.
Also during the ceremony, the pastor of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parish in Leonardtown, Father David Beaubien, recited a passage from St. Luke’s Gospel about Jesus’s suffering and death on the cross.
Then the priest offered a prayer, saying, “Through our gathering this afternoon, we consecrate this ground by our remembering a grievous wrong that was committed against justice and due process. Lord, repair our country and community and heal us of the sins of racism and injustice… In return, may peace and reconciliation abound as we look beyond the veil of race and ethnic background and see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ…”
Beforehand, Father Beaubien noted the ceremony offered an important “gesture of reconciliation and repentance.” Hance was buried in an unmarked grave in the old St. Aloysius parish cemetery, located about a mile and one-half from the church.
In an address during the ceremony, Dr. Kyrone Davis – an adjunct professor in the School of Business at George Mason University – said lynchings were acts of terrorism, and he linked them to acts of injustice against African Americans that began when slavery was introduced to the colony of Virginia in 1619.
“To date, African Americans have been terrorized in this country in one form or another for 400 years,” he said.
That history of dehumanization and inequality was also noted by Elliot Spillers, a fellow in the Equal Justice Initiative, who said that can be seen today in issues like mass incarceration affecting the African American community.
That day’s ceremony offered a remembrance for Benjamin Hance, a man lynched in that county, he said, adding, “We are telling his story, but as a whole, we are here to bear witness to the truth.”
Spillers said the soil collected that day on the spot of Hance’s lynching also harkened to the soil containing the blood of the enslaved and the sweat of those who labored in the civil rights movement, but he added that soil also represents “the opportunity for new life, for hope.”
And to represent that hope, a wreath of yellow flowers was placed on the site.
The latest local and global Catholic news delivered to your inbox.