In partnership with the Maryland Center for the Book at Maryland Humanities, the Virginia Center for the Book at Virginia Humanities presents Charles L. Chavis, Jr. (The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State) as he shares a more complete narrative of a human life taken by lynching in Salisbury, Md., in 1931. Chavis worked from previously undiscovered documents to reconstruct the full story of one of the last lynchings in Maryland, including the politically-driven aftermath which led to the state’s Interracial Commission, a pioneering force in the early civil rights movement.
Watch the video of this event and read the transcript below:
“… historians need to be salvaging experts, understanding that we must first review the existing story, literature, and research, and then determine what is missing.”Charles L. Chavis, Jr.
“The Silent Shore is a must-read account of the 1931 lynching of a young Black man on a December evening in downtown Salisbury, Maryland… Chavis digs deep, finding documents never before seen publicly, to present a rich and revealing story of how lynchings were planned and executed, and of the conspiracy of silence among white people in the region that shrouded the perpetrators of lynching from accountability. The story resonates with power and caution for our contemporary efforts to address racial violence and discrimination.” —Sherrilyn Ifill, president/director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., author of On The Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century
“Chavis, who has discovered period sources that shed new light on the lynching of Matthew Williams—a Black man who was killed by a mob in Salisbury, Maryland, in 1931—brings the sensibilities of both a scholar and a history detective to bear in scrutinizing the ins and outs of an often complicated story and narrative arc.” —Claude A. Clegg III, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, author of The Black President: Hope and Fury in the Age of Obama
We appreciate the support of our community partners for helping share information about this event: The History of Lynching in Virginia Work Group, the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission; John Mitchell, Jr. Program for History, Justice, & Race, Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University; The Racial Terror: Lynching in Virginia project, Department of Justice Studies, James Madison University.
JANE KULOW: Hello, and welcome to Shelf Life, featuring The Silent Shore with Charles L. Chavis Jr. I’m Jane Kulow, Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program at Virginia Humanities. We are pleased to co-host this event with the Maryland Center for the Book at Maryland Humanities. As neighboring humanities councils, we share a mission to amplify stories that many folks don’t know about. I’ll share a couple of housekeeping notes. Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our schedule of upcoming events and watch past events.
We appreciate the support of our community partners for helping to share information about this event. Those include the History of Lynching in Virginia Work Group of the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission, the John Mitchell, Jr. Program for History, Justice, and Race at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, and The Racial Terror: Lynching in Virginia project in the Department of Justice Studies at James Madison University. We also want to thank Ting for supporting our virtual programming.
LINDSEY BAKER: Hi, everyone. I’m Lindsey Baker, executive director of Maryland Humanities, and we are especially pleased to co-host this event with Virginia Humanities. In The Silent Shore, Dr. Chavis draws on his discovery of previously unreleased investigative documents to meticulously reconstruct the full story of one of the last lynchings in Maryland—that of Matthew Williams in 1931.
The Silent Shore explores the immediate and lingering effects of Williams’ death on the politics of racism in the United States. And now I’m pleased to introduce our speakers.
Charles L. Chavis Jr., author of The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State, is the founding director of the John Mitchell, Jr. Program for History, Justice, and Race at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, where he is also an assistant professor of conflict analysis and resolution and history. Chavis is national co-chair of the United States Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Movement and the vice chair of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Maya Davis is the director of the Riversdale House Museum in Prince George’s County, Maryland. She currently serves as a commissioner on the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture. A native Washingtonian, Maya is a graduate of Howard and George Washington universities, where she obtained degrees in history and museum studies, which I will say are the best degrees. I’m a little biased. Thank you all for joining us today.
Charles and Maya, it’s over to you.
MAYA DAVIS: Thank you so much, Lindsey and Jane. It’s my pleasure to be here this afternoon. And I want to say to our audience good afternoon and welcome to this Shelf Life virtual event. I’m Maya Davis, and it is my pleasure to share this platform with my friend and colleague, Dr. Charles Chavis, who recently released his new book The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State.
This book has been described as the definitive account of the lynching of twenty-three-year-old Matthew Williams in Maryland and further states that it’s the subsequent investigation and the legacy of modern-day lynchings. While this event happened ninety years ago just this past December 4th, the incident is one that many people today can connect with as we grapple with the rise of modern-day white supremacy–rooted acts of violence against people of color.
On a personal note, Dr. Chavis, I know that you’re well aware I have a twenty-three-year-old son. He is a senior at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and has really a lot in common with a young Matthew Williams. And I really just could not put this book down. First, because your writing was so compelling. Second, to further educate myself and understand the necessity for continued vigilance for my son and the sons of other mothers. And finally, to think about citizen advocacy and reconciliation.
And before we get started, I really—I have a few questions myself, but I want to remind our audience to make sure that they use the Q&A feature so that I can share with Dr. Chavis your questions.
So, before I get to the book specifically, Dr. Chavis, I just wanted to ask you why did you decide to tackle the subject of lynching, which is one of our most difficult histories to grapple with? And in particular, focus in on the story of Matthew Williams, who is one of more than forty lynchings in our state. Please, if you will, just open up and let us know that.
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Sure, sure. Thank you so much, Maya. A dear friend. Listen, we are partners in crime, right, in doing—
MAYA DAVIS: Yes, we are.
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: —work for justice with this lynching commission. And so thankful for your friendship and for this opportunity to share my work and research with the Maryland Humanities as well as Virginia Humanities.
So, to your question, a very common question that I get. Why did I choose to talk about lynching? It all started when I was a student at Morgan State University. Another HBCU proud grad. So, I did my PhD there in history, and I began to try to figure out what exactly I wanted my topic to be. I really wanted to focus on a legacy of racial violence. Around this time, 2014, we’re seeing Freddie Gray. We’re seeing all these things. The emergence of Black Lives Matter with the Trayvon Martin situation. I recall being a master’s student at Vanderbilt University and being arrested and startled, and I actually got sick after hearing the verdict regarding George Zimmerman.
And as a historian who’s living through these current modern-day lynchings, it seems like it’s unrelenting. It never ends on the screens. We constantly see people of color, specifically Black men and women, who are dying at the hands of the police and others. And for me, as a historian, I sought to look and examine the ways in which lynchings—understanding the historical practice of lynching can inform how we deal with and how we grapple with and understand modern-day forms of lynching.
And I think it’s also important to dispel this myth that is out there regarding the ways in which our country should compartmentalize lynching as a historical phenomenon. We have to be able to see lynching as a part of a continuation of anti-Black violence and terror that we continue to see to this day.
So, I was really inspired specifically around the cases of Freddie Gray as well as the cases of Anton Black on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. These modern-day forms of lynching. These cases caused me to think about the ways in which we can utilize history to begin to understand and unravel and make sense of the trauma that Black communities throughout this country continue to face, not something that has just emerged in the age of Black Lives Matter.
MAYA DAVIS: Thank you. Just always a compelling story. We have our own personal chats over the phone and in person, and you always have me thinking. So, as I looked at and read the book—because I am definitely one of those people where I’m looking at the cover as much as I’m looking at the content. So, I really want to start with that. And just wondering how you decided to choose the cover for this book.
As you know, we’ve kind of both had a lot of discussion around the reintroduction of trauma related to images that we’ve seen associated with the lynching of Black bodies. And your cover of this book opted to highlight the mob—the scene of the mob that were there—and not really reintroduce trauma in that way. How did you decide that this would be the cover of this book, and what was your motivation behind that?
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Well, thank you so much, Maya, for that question. I think the question concerning the trauma—we talk about this a lot. Me and you spent a lot of time on dealing with this and how we’re going to think about developing the hearings for the commission, specifically in regards to reintroducing this trauma through these very visceral and traumatic images.
There is already exhibits historically as well as publications that highlight photographs and other ephemera pertaining to lynching, and I felt that those works did an amazing job of displaying and teasing out and dealing with these images and the trauma associated with them, including the late Congressman John Lewis’s work around the Without Sanctuary exhibit.
But what I wanted to do in this book, in working with my publishers at Johns Hopkins as well as a number of colleagues at various archives throughout the state and connecting also with the descendants of Matthew Williams, I wanted to find a photograph that figuratively dispelled this myth in the way that John Lewis does in his work, in terms of displaying the actual people who were there. Because what we were dealing with as Black people in this country, specifically in regards to our history—the great assault on our history is that these lies are told regarding the history of lynching. Specifically one of the tropes that is often recounted, even in investigative documents but also even to this day, is that these lynchings took place at the hands of persons unknown, right? Which we know, in terms of the Black community, but also as my book reveals, the white community, the white political leaders, and all those involved in lynching knew exactly who was involved.
This image puts it out for all to see. That indeed there were people there who knew about it, and they didn’t seek to even try and cover up their crime. They took a photograph. That speaks to how confident and how the strength of white supremacy regarding, even if you have photographic evidence of being at a crime, you had not need to worry about the killing of a Black man or violence toward the Black community because justice did not work for them the way in which it works for others. So, it’s interesting in that regard.
But this is actually not even an image of the scene of the lynching of Matthew Williams. This is a scene from 1898, the lynching of William Andrews, that I was able to track down with the support of the Nabb Center. The Nabb Center at Salisbury University discovered this going through their materials in working with their regional archivist Ian Post. And we decided to go with this image instead of the more popular image from The Baltimore Sun—the cartoon figure that is displayed within the book as well by Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist for The Baltimore Sun. We decided to go with this one because, again, it speaks to the ways in which lynching is just not—
We talk about this is one case. I try to tell people this is one case of over 6500 potential cases around this nation. Right, and so, this image speaks not only for Matthew Williams but it also speaks to those thousands, and the thousands upon thousands of white people who were there and present and in many ways did nothing.
MAYA DAVIS: Thank you so much for that. One of the aspects of your book that I think has made this text so powerful are the personal vignettes of individuals and places on the Eastern Shore that kind of helps set the stage for the events that took place leading up to the lynching of Matthew Williams. And one of the ones that spoke to me was that of James Stewart. And I’m going to read a quick passage really quickly, and then we can kind of get into that further. I have my copy of your book here. I’m happy to have it. And in the book, you say:
The signature Black institution on Broad Street in Georgetown was John Wesley United Methodist Church. The church where Matthew Williams was a member. Today it’s the only remaining building from the original Georgetown neighborhood. Across the street from the church were the home and business of James E. Stewart, the area’s Black undertaker and funeral home director. He had started his company in 1919. It was in Stewart’s home business that Williams’ body was hidden following the lynching and where his funeral services were held. The Black Masonic hall that Williams had planned on joining was located on Broad Street, next to the white-owned Benedict’s florist.
And I could go on. You ran out further how Mr. Stewart had been educated, the places that he worked, the community members that he was associated with, and then also his personal feelings on what he thought was outside interference by NAACP, Representative Bernard Aides [?]. I just want to speak to the importance of genealogy and the work of genealogy and rebuilding these narratives. Because a lot of times you do have to depend on the narratives of other people to tell the story that you want to tell. So, I think as we do history that oftentimes genealogy is overlooked. So, I’d really like for you to speak to the power of genealogy and how it impacted your work on this book.
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Well, it was central to my work. And again, it stems from my training as a doctoral student at Morgan State University, specifically my work with Dr. Jeremiah Dibua—I’m going to give him a shout out—during our courses. One of the things in terms of our historiography and methodology course, we talked about using every source possible, right? We also discussed how we oftentimes privilege empirical sources and this Western idea of what is the authority, what is significant, right? And even in writing this book, one of the things that I wanted to make sure that I did was to center the humanity of Matthew Williams in his community.
Oftentimes, we only think about studies in traditional manuscripts on lynching—they speak to political issues in relationship to the violence. Which this book does; however, I wanted to the focus to be on the humanity and the lived experiences not only of Matthew Williams—I wanted to center it there, but I wanted to also show the humanity and the lived experiences of those at every turn who are involved as witnesses, as perpetrators. And so, I wanted to be very consistent in that.
I was really also inspired by Marcus Rediker’s work, believe it or not, The Slave Ship, which talks about moving beyond the abstractions and salvaging the humanity of the individual. And so, that’s what I sought to do in this work. And the only way that I was able to do that—as you know, when you’re trying to document the lives of Black people in this country, because of the nature of archival institutions and the nature of the ways in which we validate and venerate in some ways this empirical process and certain types of sources—the written record, for example. I had to go to genealogy to salvage the humanity of these victims and recreate their lives meticulously.
And listen, I went down the rabbit hole for nights upon nights because I wanted every individual, as much as I can. And if you see the footnotes—just a note to potential history PhD students or anyone pursuing history, before you read a book, check out the footnotes.
MAYA DAVIS: Always.
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Listen, always. And if you look at my footnotes, you’ll be able to see almost every single individual. At least I believe it should be every single individual. There is a census record, which I combed through, and I lay out a brief narrative within the footnotes that articulate the life of the individual. At least something about their family and about their occupation. And I tried to track as many of them as I could, both the victims as well as descendants of victims and those who witnessed the lynching both Black and white but also those who were culpable and complicit in the lynching, right?
So, this took a lot more time than traditional research, but that’s necessary if we’re going to be able to really salvage the humanity of victims as well as communities. It’s so easy to go the political route. And that’s why I’m thankful for my publisher at John Hopkins University for taking my book and not asking me to diminish the humanity or the human story. A lot of publishers could easily say we want certain chapters to be more political. How is this related to the overall—you know? But I was very firm in that the narrative will be consistent, and I will make sure to salvage the humanity of every person involved in this lynching and also the victims, whose families continue to this day to suffer.
MAYA DAVIS: Exactly. It just speaks to the loss. Because we know about the loss of life. But there’s been the loss of whole communities. Communities were destroyed in this process as well. So, I really thank you for taking that into consideration as you wrote this book.
Before I move on to my next question, I just want to remind our audience that if they have questions, we are taking questions for Dr. Chavis. Please enter them in the Q&A feature here on Zoom. My next question is you serve as the vice chair of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I’m so pleased to serve as a colleague with you on that commission. In your role as vice chair of that commission, did it impact this book in any way? Did it cause you to make changes or reconsider how you shape and frame the story that you were going to tell? Please speak to that.
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Sure. Unfortunately, believe it or not, it actually didn’t, outside of the conclusion in which I articulate the process and how we confront the work, knowing what we know about not only the lynching of Matthew Williams but lynching overall as a nation. And so, I included that within my conclusion. I had to make revisions there. But the majority of his research and his work had been already completed outside of the in-depth genealogical work that I wanted to do to salvage the humanity of the victims. But also to identify the witnesses and descendants of the witnesses and perpetrators as well as the descendants of Matthew Williams.
And so a lot of the book was already complete, and the research also had been completed for a very long time. And prior to the existence of the commission—and I talk about some of this in the book—I discovered these records about four or five years ago and had kept that between myself as well as the descendants who I could identify and local activists in the region. And I had been working diligently with the local community as well as the descendents to make sure I got this right and that the truth was laid bare but in an equitable and in an ethical way.
MAYA DAVIS: Yeah, and I have to thank you as a former archivist. Many archives across this country—they have vast collections and barebones staff to really process those collections. And so it’s not until historians like yourself come in and glean the records that we discover some of what’s in there. And one of the things that I know that you uncovered—I believe it was the attorney general’s files that you were looking at where there were images of people who were involved in these lynchings. Putting faces to names is really just so powerful. And we didn’t even know something like that existed. So, thank you for your work. And I just think it’s just truly amazing what you were able to uncover in going through those records.
Before I open it up to the public, I do have one last question that I really want to get to the heart of. In light of current dialogues that we have today both in support of and/or opposition to critical race theory, how do you think we can advance the work of truth-telling in books like yours and reconciliation and make it actionable for just your basic citizen?
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Well, I think first we have to recognize and decide as a public who believe in democracy and racial equity—we have to make a decision that we’re not going to allow history in this manner—specifically the history of some of the most marginalized and oppressed people within this nation—to be politicized. I think we have to make that decision, and we have to decide whether or not and when we’re going to begin to fight back.
Because I see critical race theory and the politicization of critical race theory as being a Trojan horse of sorts for a real and direct assault on the truth regarding the ways in which our nation has treated, Black, brown, and the most marginalized people within our country. And we see that evidenced in the legislation that is kind of being birthed out of—the original demand was to ban critical race theory. And as a former high school teacher, knowing the demands of curriculum and knowing what had to be taught, I can guarantee the majority of people out there—the majority of teachers who are teaching—don’t have time to introduce a specific university-based or university-level theory to their students. They’re mostly interested in trying to get the basics down. And if they’re allowed to include elements of enslavement or lynching, then they’ll do that. But the curriculum is not such in that it will allow you to pontificate about a theory, right?
So, I think we have to dispel that lie. One of the things that I ran into when I was teaching at a community college in Maryland—we were talking about the legacy of enslavement and the history of enslavement. And I mentioned a number of figures who were the most prominent—and we’re celebrating the bicentennial of Harriet Tubman this year. And I began to talk about the importance of understanding Maryland’s history in the work of abolitionism. And the students said, “What history are you talking about? What do you mean?”
And I said Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were from Maryland. And they’re like, “Really?” And this was in a community college course. So, we don’t have time for critical race theory, to be teaching a theory such as this in school. It’s really not being taught. What we are doing is teaching the truth about our nation. And that is the larger threat. We see that in Florida with a number of bills that are emerging that really expose what really as at play to actually begin to dismantle and disallow the teaching of so-called difficult conversations around race and things like that. That is the big assault. It’s really an assault on truth-telling, not so much on theory. And if we are smart enough to mobilize and recognize that and support organizations such as Virginia Humanities and Maryland Humanities as well as the Riverside Museum and the John Mitchell, Jr. Program at George Mason, we have to support these organizations because they’re really carrying the banner of truth-telling. That’s why the humanities are so important, right?
MAYA DAVIS: So, important. Well, I don’t want to hog up all the time. I want to open it up for questions. We do have a couple of questions. But there’s a lot of praise in the Q&A as well for your work, and so I just wanted to share one of those first. From Julie Parson, who says, “Thank you for writing this book. As a citizen of Salisbury and someone who has researched this case, I was blown away by this book and the details that you uncovered.” And I would agree with her wholeheartedly.
And now I’m going to move on to a question from Frank Dukes, pronouns he/him. He says, “Thank you for the book.” He definitely opens with thank you. A lot of people are really happy about this book. “What are the ongoing impacts that his and other lynchings have on the local communities in which these took place?”
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Thank you so much for your question, Frank. This lynching had a direct impact on the Black community of Salisbury to this day. And I’m able to document that in the latter part of the book in terms of my conclusion. I work through the lingering effects of racial terror lynchings and the ways in which this trauma is passed down. But also I lay out the case that I’m currently working on in a newer project that maps the lynching of Matthew Williams and makes a direct connection to the dismantling and destruction of the Georgetown community, which is where Matthew Williams was actually born and raised—his community.
What a lot of people don’t know is that the lynching actually took place, yes, on the courthouse lawn. However, the conclusion of the lynching happened at the entrance of the business district of the Black community of Georgetown. And this is where his body was displayed subsequently to put the Black community of Georgetown on notice. And it’s very important for us to understand that in 1931 at the time of the lynching, there were around nineteen Black businesses and homes—it was a Black neighborhood, it was a Black business district—that were still there. To this day, there’s only one building that remains of the community of Georgetown. That’s the Charles Chipman Cultural Center, which is a former church, John Wesley, which Matthew Williams attended.
So, all of those buildings, even the bodies in the Black cemetery, were exhumed. So, when we think about Tulsa and Rosewood and other massacres, we need to look at in some ways these state-sanctioned, systemic assaults and destruction of Black communities that are equally as traumatic. And I think part of the work that I’m doing in this book and the subsequent work we’re doing with national advocacy organizations is to shine a light on these lesser-known cases.
And the book as well as evidence that we’re uncovering lays out a direct line between the lynching of Matthew Williams and the systemic assault on this community in which Matthew Williams was directly impacted.
MAYA DAVIS: Thank you. So, our next question is from Janet Johnson, who is inquiring on whether the descendants of Matthew Williams remain in the area. And I don’t know that he had any direct descendants, but family members—adjacent descendant communities.
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Correct. So, he actually had collateral descendants. So, when we think of collateral descendants, of course he didn’t have any children. But we have direct connections. And actually the afterward of the book is written by one of his collateral descendants, Jeannie Jones. Her great-grandmother was Eddie Black, who raised Matthew Williams. And her story is told in the Afro-American newspaper. And it was around a little over a year or so when I worked with a genealogist to uncover and to identify the family. As Maya mentioned, I utilize genealogy in this book, and playing an amateur genealogist, I hit a wall, right?
MAYA DAVIS: We all hit walls.
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: I’m telling you, right? I said I need to bring in the professionals. Because there’s a skill set. This is a discipline. So, I contacted a master genealogist, amazing Damita Green, who was able to tie in all the loose ends and connect me directly with the descendant.
And just to speak to Ms. Damita Green’s work, who’s also a doctoral student at Morgan State University. Damita Green was able to do something that locals and others—even national leaders—were unable to do. In doing this. So, this speaks to the importance of proper genealogy and the importance of genealogists in the work for justice. And she got it to me within like a couple months—at least two months—during the midst of a pandemic was able to track down the most recent collateral descendant.
So, I’m kind of longwinded, but the answer to your question—
MAYA DAVIS: No problem. I think the audience will appreciate your response.
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Sure, sure. To answer your question regarding the family, as we know in most cases of lynching—and this was the case for Matthew Williams—one of the reasons why it was so hard for the community to identify family as they begin to do this restorative justice work—because it’s important to understand that the work did not begin with my research. Amber Green, James John McCawa, and others in Salisbury—Shanie Shields and others. Sherrilyn Ifill, whose book I honored and whose research I build upon. They began shedding light on these cases, and it’s very important to acknowledge that.
One of the reasons why they were unable to identify the family is due to what we know about all cases of lynching. When we think about and we teach the history of the Great Migration, we talk about—and this is the more watered-down, whitewashed version that we often teach—is that it was about job-seeking. Blacks were fleeing. But a number of scholars let us know—and their work needs to come to the forefront in terms of our curriculum at every level—that people fled and left the North and other areas, escaping racial terror. Domestic, racialized terror. And that was definitely the case for what we understand for the family of Matthew Williams. Some of them stayed, but the family of Matthew Williams—we actually identified them in California. And they had left shortly thereafter. A lot of the family had left outside distant relatives to either North Carolina or to Washington D.C. following the lynching. Because as you can imagine, families were targeted directly following these lynchings.
MAYA DAVIS: Thank you again. Our next question—and I hope that I’m pronouncing this correctly. Please forgive me if I’m not. I believe the name is Adeen Kaylee. Her question is do you think that there are senses in which labeling present-day violence against Black individuals as lynchings weakens understanding of the horrors of what is usually considered to be lynching in the past?
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: No, I do not. And thank you so much, Adeen, for that question. I often get it a lot of times. I’m very careful within the book. I talk about not getting caught of the trappings of is this a lynching or is that a lynching. Because what it does is it forces us to dehumanize the realities of anti-Black violence. It causes us to overlook the basic reasons why lynching is so dramatic, in its very basic form. So I don’t even—I think it’s important for us to—I don’t like getting into that debate around is this a lynching or is this not a lynching. And I talk about that within the book.
However, I think it’s important for us to understand—and I also am very careful. I use the term modern-day forms of lynching. I don’t believe—of course we have a historical definition of exactly what lynching is, and I believe that we should be very direct and clear regarding what is a lynching and what’s not a lynching. But I don’t think it’s worth our time to debate around—because I do think it is re-traumatizing.
And I think it speaks to—also what I lay out in the book—to how, if we’re not careful through language, we miss the more important story here, that a Black person was killed unjustly for whatever reason. So in debating the term and what’s a lynching and what’s not, I don’t think it weakens it. We have to understand the anti-Black violence as a direct line, right? This history, the lynching of Matthew Williams, directly, when we think about the Black consciousness and Black people across this country, we don’t see them as these one-offs. This is unrelenting trauma that our communities have had to grapple with, right? The lack of due process. When you think about specifically the case of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, these others—at the end of the day, from Matthew Williams’s family to Breonna Taylor’s family, their child who was Black is no longer with them. And that is a reality and a trauma that Black people throughout this country have had to face since we’ve arrived here. And that’s something that we have to acknowledge and deal with and we have to sit in as a country.
That is the difficult part. We want to dismiss these issues as being historical—the lynchings as being historical. These happened so long ago. Right?
MAYA DAVIS: Yeah. And I’m glad you framed it in that way because I think in order for us to identify these modern lynchings as such, we do have to kind of do a comparison and contrast and know that it didn’t end a long time ago. It’s a continuation. It never stopped. So, this list will go on and on and on until we decide as a country that it’s no longer tolerable.
We have another thank you in the chat from Mrs. Nancy Mollett. She shared that she hasn’t read your book yet but looks forward to reading it soon. We have two more questions, and we have about five more minutes before we wrap up. So, I do want to get to those. We have another question from Mr. Dukes. He said that you’re teaching at a state university in which our new governor has called for an end to teaching divisive topics. Will this impact your work in any way?
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: No. Thank you so much for your question, Mr. Dukes. But hopefully that’s a definitive no. I mean, I think—
MAYA DAVIS: As Oprah Winfrey said, “No is a complete sentence, and it doesn’t require explanation.”
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Exactly. We’re going to leave it there.
MAYA DAVIS: Yes. And we have another question. Do you plan on investigating other cases on the Shore like George Armwood or Euel Lee. And they state that Sherrilyn Ifill does a great job of investigating these cases in her book, but I didn’t know if you would expand to those too.
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Yes. It’s important, everybody. You can definitely get a copy of the book because what I do in the book—something that’s very important. And this is something that I did after the fact. Like I began early, like a couple years ago—I began to reflect on the work of Professor Ifill. And one of the things that she said to the members of the commission when we met at UMD—she talked about making sure as a commission that we recognized and did not give those who got away with it a pass. And so, that stuck into my head—specifically the cases you mentioned. Not only the cases of George Armwood and Euel Lee but also the cases that are overlooked—the near lynchings that amazing scholars like the late Linda Dwyer and others document within the region. That these cases and these stories are salvaged and put in larger context of this overall terror.
So, yes we have forty—what we think to be forty additional cases. However, it’s also important—and I note this in the book as well—because of the research of Northeastern University, we are now aware of an additional potential seventy-seven cases of racially motivated homicides that not are parallel to the commission’s date, charge, or task in terms of our scope of 1850s to 1933. These cases are from 1931 to the 70s.
So, when we think about these lynchings ending, the commission has really just begun to scratch the surface, and this research has really begun to scratch the surface. And the near lynchings are cases that I document in the region as well as the additional cases. So, I’ll be working with the descendants of Matthew Williams as well as the descendants of George Armwood to support their community and their work as well on the Eastern Shore. And as a commissioner, I’m also tasked with supporting the Eastern Shore region overall. And so, I work directly with the descendants of Williams and George Armwood as well as local leaders there, including my dear friend Marshall Stevenson, who is at UMES.
MAYA DAVIS: Yeah, I tell you, though, thanks and praise for your book—they’re rolling in in the question and answer. And I see one from our colleague on the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Dr. Simone Barrett, who I’m happy is here today joining us. And another colleague, Shaquia Gillette Warren, and Mr. Todd Thyberg. And so, I was really excited to king of see all the thanks.
And I’m going to sneak in one more question before we wrap up from someone named John Luca, who also starts with a thank you and wonderful work. And John Luca mentions that Tonya Sutherland talks about archival amnesty to describe the role of archives in failing to historically document white supremacist violence and thus pursuing restorative justice. Would you agree that there was a complicity in archival practices, cultures, and covering up lynchers and their enablers? So, we have a couple minutes, so this one has to be a brief response. And I know it’s a loaded question. I would love to weigh in on this myself, but I’m going to let you take it away.
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Yes, I think we do. I’m so glad for you mentioning the work of Professor Sutherland. I think we have to deal with this because it is something that I saw first-hand going into the Maryland State Archives. And a dear friend of mine who’s also a commissioner was there—Chris Haley, who is the nephew of Alex Haley. And both of us—I think about this day every time—when the book was published, I thought about it. This was the beginning, when I discovered these records. Both me and Chris were really awestruck seeing that these boxes were empty. The original boxes regarding the Maryland Anti-Lynching Commission—Interracial Commission—has records on the lynching. And me and Chris—I called to get those documents, and lo and behold the boxes were all empty, specifically the years pertaining to 1931 and 1933. And so I asked for Chris to come down and help me figure it out, and both of us were baffled at this.
And so knowing that and having to deal with that really speaks to your point. We have to be able to grapple with this and recognize that these—we have to stop hiding this history. That’s one of the reasons why we can’t really as America deal with and reckon with the truth—because it’s been hidden. And my work at the end of the day seeks to expose the not only injustices in terms of what exactly happened but also the injustices that happened in archival institutions and expose materials, records, and stories that were hidden in full view. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m really glad and excited that the national Movement for Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation has decided to focus specifically on Salisbury and the case of Matthew Williams and the lynchings that took place in the Eastern Shore region, to utilize this example of what exactly is at stake here in terms of our history to utilize this region as their national pillar—to build on their national movement.
We know that reconciliation, restorative justice—it is local. And the goal of this book is not only to speak to the issues that we’re dealing with in America but also to support local movements and to expose the injustices that took place at our backdoor.
MAYA DAVIS: Well, thank you so much, Dr. Chavis. And before I close us out, I just want to acknowledge Carrie with the Somerset Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Committee, who also wanted to thank you for the book and is looking forward to working closely with you. As well as Julie Parsons, who shared that Linda would have loved your book. And I think she’s referring to Ms. Linda Dwyer, who we all loved and respected for her work on lynching. And it was a great loss for us to have lost Linda during this pandemic. And she’s greatly missed, and she says that she’s glad that you were able to collaborate with Linda. So, I’m really excited to see that.
So, now it’s time for us to wrap things up. I want to thank you, Dr. Charles Chavis, my good friend. And I want to thank our audience who tuned in as well for your insightful questions. Please consider buying the book. It’s an excellent book, a quick read, and it’s just so needed in a time like this. And make sure that you reach out to your local bookseller or through the links on the VaBook.org website. You can also check out future events from the Maryland and Virginia Humanities councils at their websites, MarylandHumanities.org—and that is MDHumanities.org, and VirginiaHumanities.org all spelled out. So, we look forward to seeing you at the next program. Thank you.
CHARLES L. CHAVIS JR.: Thank you.