Inspired by South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, civil-rights attorney Ifill (Law/Univ. of Maryland) offers a new approach to addressing the history of lynching in America.
Concentrating her case on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a place culturally, socially and geographically linked to the South, Ifill begins with what should have been a slam-dunk moment: a recent proposal to erect a statue in Easton to the onetime slave and emancipator Frederick Douglass, “Talbot County’s most prestigious and perhaps only internationally known native son.” The proposal instantly divided Easton along racial lines, with one white veterans’ group insisting that the courthouse lawn was reserved for statues of those who had given their lives for their country. Douglass arguably had, but the most prominent monument nearby was given to the 84 men of the county who had died fighting for the Confederacy. The divide runs deep and deeper, as Ifill shows, examining the history of the lynching of black men for all the usual reasons—mostly for allegedly raping a white woman or even whistling at or looking at one. One notorious case in 1919, involving one such “rape,” concerned a man named Isaiah Fountain, who narrowly escaped lynching only to be hanged before the same courthouse where Douglass had been jailed for being a runaway; the supposed victim gave testimony that “would not stand up in court today, or even in 1919, but for the fact that Fountain was black.” That was enough, and it was enough in many other cases in Talbot County and its neighbors. One legacy of all this, argues Ifill, is the difficulty blacks and whites have even of discussing it, since few really want to remember what for most on both sides of the divide were traumatizing events. Yet remembering is essential.
An intriguing, immodest proposal that itself warrants discussion—and action.