In what is believed to be a first-of-its-kind pardon by a U.S. governor, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has issued a posthumous pardon to 34 individuals murdered in racist lynchings that took place between 1854 and 1933 in his state. In each instance, the individuals were denied legal due process for the allegations they faced.
“My hope is that this action will at least in some way help to right these horrific wrongs and perhaps bring a measure of peace to the memories of these individuals and to their descendants and their loved ones,” Hogan said.
Brian Witte of The Associated Press reported that Hogan “signed the order at an event honoring Howard Cooper, a 15-year-old who was dragged from a jailhouse and hanged from a tree by a mob of white men in 1885 before his attorneys could file an appeal of a rape conviction that an all-white jury reached within minutes.”
The signing ceremony for the series of pardons took place in Towson, Maryland near the former jailhouse where Cooper was held and later killed.
Maryland House Speaker Adrienne Jones, the state’s first Black and first female House speaker, attended the signing with Hogan. Jones called the event vitally important and said lawmakers coming together to acknowledge that the events of the past were wrong was an essential step before moving forward as a state.
“Memorializing the site where Howard Cooper was lynched gives us the opportunity to courageously confront the injustices of our past,” she said.
Hogan’s actions were inspired by the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project and students at Loch Raven Technical Academy, who both petitioned the Republican governor to issue the pardon for Cooper earlier in the year. After receiving their request, he directed his chief legal counsel to review all of the available documentation on racial lynchings that previously took place in the state.
According to Witte, “Will Schwarz, who is president of the memorial project, described the posthumous pardons as a powerful moment in acknowledging the truth — a critical step toward reconciliation. He said the history of racial terror lynching in the United States has been ignored for so long that most people don’t know the scale of the problem.”
In an interview with Witte, Schwarz said, “We have a responsibility to try and dismantle that machine of white supremacy and this is a big piece of it, acknowledging the violation of civil rights and of due process that were a part of these awful lynchings.”
The Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in 2019 (“the first of its kind in the nation,” according to Witte) to research the history of racist lynchings in the state. Historians estimated that at least 40 documented lynchings took place in Maryland in the past.
“In some of those cases, the victims were not yet arrested, so they were not part of the legal system and not eligible for the posthumous clemency approved Saturday by Hogan,” Witte said. “A historic marker was unveiled at the [pardoning ceremony] site in a partnership with the Baltimore County Coalition of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, the Equal Justice Initiative and Baltimore County.”
According to the plaque dedicated to Cooper’s memory, the teen’s body was left hanging from a sycamore tree “so angry white residents and local train passengers could see his corpse.”
“Later, pieces of the rope were given away as souvenirs,” the sign says. “Howard’s mother, Henrietta, collected her child’s remains and buried him in an unmarked grave in Ruxton. No one was ever held accountable for her son’s lynching.”
The Equal Justice Initiative has examined the long and painful history of lynchings in America, tracking more than 6,500 of the racist attacks that are known to historians. The actual number of lynchings in the country is thought to be even higher since many of these murders were never properly documented.