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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Broadus Mitchell, August 14 and 15, 1977. Interview B-0024. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Brutal lynching and public reactions in Salisbury, Maryland, in 1935

Mitchell describes in great detail the lynching of an African American man in Salisbury, Maryland around 1935. In his retelling of the event, Mitchell says that several observers tried to stop the lynching but that the mob behind it was unstoppable. At the time Mitchell was a professor at Johns Hopkins University and through his community connections he was asked by the Federal Council of Churches to write up a report of the lynching. Mitchell worked feverishly to have the perpetrators prosecuted, but found that community members and churches—and eventually the Federation itself—were unsupportive of his actions. Indeed, Mitchell contends that one of his only public sources of support came from the writings of H.L. Mencken, whom he had began to associate with during those years. His comments here are telling of the deep-seated and visceral nature of racial violence in that area at that time.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Broadus Mitchell, August 14 and 15, 1977. Interview B-0024. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
One of the most shocking developments, of course, was the lynching of Negroes. My father was always indignant at the lynchings, and I remember very well when I was with him at Blue Ridge, North Carolina, which is a YMCA training center where meetings were held and classes, too, in the summer. When there was a lynching in Georgia and the newspapers were full of it and the magazines and so on, Father talked about it, distressed by the whole episode. I remember his showing me a picture in some magazine, maybe Newsweek or Life, something like that, of the little sheriff in this county holding a piece of the rope with which the man had been hanged. And this sheriff was a little under-sized meek little man, the last person [laughter] that you'd expect would take an active part in protecting a prisoner. And Father said that that to him represented the lapse of law in the South, and he deplored it and constantly scolded when lynchings occurred. It wasn't very long after that that they began to diminish. The Federal Council of Churches had a practice in the thirties, it must have been, of issuing a little fact bulletin on each lynching that occurred. They would invite somebody in the locality who presumably was accurate to report to them exactly what happened, in a circumstantial way. And then the little bulletin recited all the particulars, not with sermonizing or editorial comment or anything of that sort, but simply letting the dreadful detail speak for itself. My father approved strongly of what I tried to do in the case of two lynchings that happened in rapid succession on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I can't give you the date, but I suppose it must have been around 1935. The first was at a little place called Snow Hill, and I don't recall the particulars except that a black man was taken out and lynched. The Eastern Shore of Maryland is separated not only geographically from the western part of the state by Chesapeake Bay, but it's separated culturally. It's kind of an enclave over there, and they have an inferiority complex which takes the form of overdefensiveness. Shortly after this lynching at Snow Hill occurred another one at Salisbury, which is a bigger place. This black boy, who was about eighteen years old, I think, worked at a lumber yard in Salisbury. And he went in, as I remember, to speak to his employer with some grievance - what, I don't know - and a quarrel developed, and he shot his employer, who didn't collapse immediately but chased this black boy through the lumber yard and tried to catch him and so on. Or maybe that was when he got shot; I've forgotten. Some of the people in the office came to the rescue of the employer, and they shot this man in the face and he was taken to the local hospital. There he was held under guard. Some guard, not much. The chief of police of Salisbury was summoned when a mob collected and moved toward the hospital to seize this boy and do him mischief. The head nurse stood in the hallway and tried to resist the entrance of the mob, and the chief of police [laughter] stood behind her and offered no real resistance. So the mob surged into the ward, and they threw this boy out of a first-story window and dragged him the short distance to the town. On the way they had to pass over a fairly narrow bridge, not wider than this living room, and there a courageous veteran of the First World War parked his car across the bridge so as to try to block the passage. And he stood on the roof of the car and tried to harangue the crowd and turn them back. But they surged all around him and over the car, and they took this boy to the fire station where they got a rope, and then to the court house yard, where they put a rope around his neck and threw it over the limb of a tree. At that point another citizen of Salisbury did a courageous thing. He was somebody employed in the courthouse who was brave enough to go and try to take the rope off this boy's neck. But, of course, it was impossible for him to accomplish this, and the man was hanged. They cut him down and dragged him by the rope tied to the back of a truck to a gas station, where the body was drenched with gasoline, and then they dragged it over to the negro section of Salisbury, where they dragged it around the little streets there and set the body on fire. And then they distributed in the crowd short lengths of the rope for souvenirs, and they cut off his fingers and distributed them. The Federal Council of Churches, Ernest Johnson was in charge of it and asked me if I would go over to Salisbury and make a factual report on this lynching. So I did. I got there in the evening and spent the next day - I wish I'd spent longer - in talking with people who figured in one way or another in the lynching. Of course, I didn't find anybody who confessed to having been in the mob, but I talked to two of the ministers of the town - it's a town of many churches - and to a principal banker, to the chief of police, to the sheriff, to the head nurse, to both of these men who had tried to prevent the lynching, and maybe some others that I have forgotten. And I thought I had an accurate account of it. So I reported to the Federal Council of Churches. My report was published also - I don't know how that happened - in the Baltimore Sun newspaper. The Federal Council of Churches, I believe, sent them a copy. There was immediate outcry from numbers of church people in Salisbury because I had [laughter] observed in my report that while this was a town full of churches, and some of them quite elaborate, where there were church houses where there were religious workers and so on, that as far as I could tell, no clergyman in Salisbury on the Sunday following the lynching on Friday had mentioned it. And I said in effect that the most spectacular sin that had been committed in Salisbury went without notice. Well, this bit them. I did say that one minister told me that while he didn't include it in his sermon, he mentioned it in his pastoral prayer, that he told God about it but he got to his parishioners only indirectly. The other clergyman, who was the head of one of the largest churches, had said to me in almost so many words that he was ashamed that he had not immediately condemned this dreadful murder, but the implication was that there were doubtless [laughter] members of his congregation who, if they did not sympathize strongly with the mob, may have been in it even. Well, that caused some sensation. I went to see the Attorney General of Maryland to urge that they press prosecution of members of the mob, particularly after a list was published in an Eastern Shore paper of persons who were in the mob and who didn't deny it in any way. Well, here was confession of guilt. I couldn't see the Attorney General; I saw his assistant. But he explained - and afterwards I think I got some word from the Attorney General himself - to the effect that this was something that lay within a local jurisdiction over there, and it wasn't their responsibility and so on. Black communists in Baltimore who were few but active at that time, and who had a house somewhere in the black section of the city which was their headquarters, and they were joined by a young member of the faculty of Johns Hopkins University, Albert Blumberg and some other white men. And they organized a party to visit the Governor in his office and appeal to him for action. They asked if I would go along with them, and I did. And when we reached the Governor's office we found him pretty much barricaded, and he sent out word that he would see only a few of the delegation, but Albert Blumberg and myself and some of these black boys went in and found him surrounded by large men who were evidently his bodyguards. It was put on me to state our case, and when he was not responsive I said I thought he ought to be impeached, that his first obligation was to protect the citizens of the state and that he hadn't done it, and there had been two of these lynchings. He hadn't done anything in the Snow Hill one or this either. We never did get any action from it. H. L. Mencken, who was always condemning abuses (you know, Mencken was regarded as a sort of a sardonic critic, and much that he wrote was intended to be extreme and to excite people to oppose him), on an occasion of this sort was serious and impressive in his condemnation of what had happened. It was an excoriation that he gave these lynchings, and the neglect of the authorities to do anything about it. So my little report had appeared, and he asked me to come down to see him at ten o'clock at night. He always worked, I was told, until ten o'clock, and then he knocked off and frequently would go and have beer with friends. He had a circle, you know; I went once or twice. And I enjoyed very much talking with him that evening. He was entirely sympathetic with what I had tried to do. The Federal Council of Churches wired me after the reaction to my report flared up and said that it had been released by their office prematurely or without sufficient consideration and that they proposed to issue a statement to the effect that this was just my view and that they had asked for it, but that they didn't sponsor it in any way or take responsibility for it. So I wired them back saying, what you propose to do now leaves me standing alone, which I am perfectly willing to do; by all means, issue your statement right away. Well, that brought down the Secretary of the Federal Council of Churches to see me right away. The next morning was a Sunday morning. I remember I got him at the station. And he asked me whether I was a churchman, and I said no. I said, "I don't see what that's got to do with it." But it was because some of these people had said that a heathen had come in among them and was scolding them and so on. So they didn't issue the statement, but they did delay issuing the bulletin. However, finally, I think, after some weeks, it did come out, is my recollection. Many people on the Eastern Shore who could be regarded as spokesmen, I think, for the Eastern Shore assumed an attitude of pride at what they had done, they were defending themselves, and they got out stickers that went on the bumpers of their cars saying, "I'm an Eastern Shoreman and proud of it." They turned back trucks bringing provisions and so on from the Western Shore to the Eastern Shore, making it very clear that they felt that the Western Shore was intruding on their mores, on what they had done.