It happened the summer Howard Cooper turned fifteen. The year was 1885. Sweat beaded on foreheads and the high-pitched hum of cicadas buzzed in trees.
Southern belle Katie Gray walked home from the railroad station and said something to Howard as she passed him. She’d known him before.
Maybe a taunt. Maybe a pleasantry.
We’ll never know.
He may have averted his eyes. Or not. He may have offended her immature sexuality if he didn’t attempt a look. He followed her into the woods where something happened.
She told her father who gathered friends into a mob. They found him after five days . Newspaper stories convicted him. When mobs grew outside, the sheriff moved him for his safety.
Howard Cooper Convicted. No Presumption of Innocence.
He never stood a chance.
An all-white jury convicted Cooper in less than a minute. Rape. Katie Gray never testified to rape. Cooper steadfastly denied he raped her. It’s hard to say if the prosecution presented evidence of rape.
The judge sentenced him to death by hanging. His attorney appealed the case. He’d already won two earlier cases for black rights magnifying local outrage. The trial violated Cooper’s 14th Amendment rights; Maryland prohibited Blacks from serving on juries.
On the morning of the appeal filing to the U.S. Supreme Court, a mob of masked men collected in twos and threes. One pulled out a rope.
They waited ’til after midnight not wanting to lynch on a Sunday.
On July 13,1885 at 1:00 a.m. with a noose already around his neck, they dragged Cooper from jail. Someone tossed the rope over a sycamore tree branch. Forty men pulled, causing death by long suffocation.
The mob left his body hanging “so angry white residents and local train passengers could see his corpse,” according to Cooper’s memorial plaque. As with most lynchings, they never held anyone accountable for his murder.
Breaking Ground in Racial History
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a potential 2024 Presidential candidate, granted posthumous pardons on May 9, 2021 to thirty-four Black men and boys lynched between 1854 and 1933 in his state including Howard Cooper. The announcement makes Maryland the first and only state to issue a comprehensive set of pardons to men, women and boys (NPR News) immorally lynched in the 19th and 20th centuries, a small but important victory.
Each lynching traumatized entire communities, causing millions of African Americans to migrate from the South.
Many who witnessed the horrors of lynching never spoke of it. Their fear of being the next lynching victim terrified them into accepting racial hierarchy. Similar fear continues today, for example, where some usurp the rule of law with their own violence.
Museums and Memorials
In 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery honoring the memory of lynching victims. $20 million in private and charitable donations supports its education mission, part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. It displays the history of slavery and racism in America, and connects systemic racial cruelties of the past and present. Visitors learn how lynching became legalized capital punishment, how we dehumanized people, and suppressed Black voters by closing polling places or changing rules at the last minute.
Another similar organization, The Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, documents and advocates for public acknowledgement of lynching murders, and works to honor and dignify the lives of the victims. They believe racism continues to inflict injuries that cannot be healed until confronted. Truth comes before reconciliation.
Some things take a long time to change.
Maryland leads the nation in recognizing and pardoning Black Americans lynched by whites.
Critics of the lynching memorials say that dredging up the past will only create racial division, exposing animosities that have festered for years. The only way to heal those wounds, others say, is to confront what happened. The history of lynching includes the construction of a gallows on the Capital lawn on January 6, 2021.
“I don’t think it should be that hard to look at history and imagine the impact it had and continues to have — and do something about it,” founder of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, Will Schwarz said. “You can draw a straight line from this nation’s acceptance of lynching to cops shooting blacks in the back today.”
It remains to be seen whether any of these new efforts help the nation confront our racial crimes and how they foster white supremacy.
I hope so.
Politicians still rile up white mobs and incite racial violence. We get to decide how far we’ve come and if we’re turning back. Back to a summer long ago. A summer to remember.