September-October 2011

Strange Fruit:
Lynching on the
Maryland Courthouse Lawn

Part 2 of the Polly Stewart Interview

By Ross Altman

RA:      Well, let me resume this conversation with the other subject of your research that grabbed my attention and that’s a book that you were a part of called “Out on the Courthouse Lawn.” Refresh my mind as to the subtitle of it?

PS:       Well, I’ve got it right here. The title is “On the Courthouse Lawn – Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century” by Sherrilyn Ifill.

RA:      Well, that seems to be a pretty far stretch from being interested in itinerant folksingers except for the fact of a song that Time Magazine voted the best song of the 20th century being about lynching, which was, of course, the song that Billie Holiday sang, Strange Fruit. But you had a very local interest in that subject and that’s how she came to interview you for this book, because you had actually become aware of lynchings that had taken place right near where you were teaching on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. So I wonder if you could spend a few minutes going back in terms of what first brought your attention to that part of our history and how you came to want to study it in a way that eventually put you in the real line of fire . . .

PS:       Dog house.

RA:      . . . in terms of your own reputation in the community who didn’t want to hear about this stuff?

PS:       So I’ll tell you how it happened. I came to – this started in 1973. I was hired to come teach at Salisbury in the Fall of ’73, so I came there in the summer, my then husband and I, came in the summer of ’73, and the first thing I saw was that the man who had had the position of teaching folklore before I got there had left behind a large array of student collections, and he had instructed his students to collect classic genres – oral genres – riddles, superstitions, proverbs, legends, and lives, and so he was quite specific in what he wanted. And he got them to provide a little bit of contextual information, but it was very old-fashioned collecting. Anyway, I was needing to go . . .

RA:      And some of the real meat of the entire discipline of folklore—just those things that you mentioned.

PS:       That’s right. It was classic, old fashioned folklore, which is just report, you bring a little context information, and then you brush your hands off and you go away. And it was good for a student because it would be a semester project, and there was just a lot of material that he had left behind. I had heard that he took the stuff that he wanted with him, but he left a lot of stuff. And so there was just hundreds and hundreds, many thousands of sheets, with one item per sheet. It was a very old-fashioned method and it was okay. But anyway, what I saw was that in going through these collections, I realized that there was some material about some lynchings in Salisbury and there were two. I got it sorted out finally. The first one was in December of 1931, and a man was lynched on the courthouse lawn at Salisbury.

RA:      There’s the title right there. My God. On the courthouse lawn. Can you imagine that?

Billie Holiday - Strange Fruit
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IscrQnhg6l8)

PS:       Yeah. So then shortly after that, I put this narrative together over several years. I didn’t know this, but I read the bits and pieces of narrative that were in the archive student collections. So shortly after that, in the next year, before a year had passed, an African-American farm laborer was accused of murdering a white farm family and he was arrested and it was in the context of this lynching, the earlier lynching. See, everything was all connected in the minds of the people. Then, on top of that, three years – two years after that in ’33, there was a horrible hurricane. The Eastern Shore is subject to hurricanes. Of course, it’s on the east coast, and it was a real bad summer, real hot, and that was a really bad hurricane. But there was a man who had been arrested in Princess Anne, which is 13 miles south of Salisbury, and he had been put up to a preposterous attempt to try to rob somebody and it had failed, and he had been arrested. And so there was a rumor that in the course of his attempted robbery, he had raped an elderly woman. This wasn’t—I don’t think it’s true because he was actually not very bright–-was slow, as they say.

RA:      Uh huh.

PS:       In any case, a white man had put him up to it.

RA:      Developmentally disabled probably.

PS:       That’s right, yeah.

RA:      We would say today.

PS:       Yeah, that’s right. So anyway, he was in jail and had been through a whole series of things, including being extradited, and local citizens became more and more angry at the things that happened with the other two, so they built a gallows at Somerset County Jail and lynched him.

RA:      This began with the Salisbury lynching in December of 1931? And then?

PS:       The murders in Somerset County in 1932, and then the Princess Anne lynching in 1933. And I saw these things from the folklorist’s perspective. I saw this as a way to theorize about the events, and I was looking at it from just an analytic perspective and I wanted to point out that this was an example of how folklore makes you do things. I mean, folklore actually can cause historical events, and one of the things that you can see is that one of the things we do in our folklore is we organize things in threes, and very often the third thing that happens is a combination of two and it’s almost inevitable that a third thing will happen. Allen Dundes talked about this.

RA:      Like the third shoe dropping?

PS:       Yeah, that’s right. And so the third time it was the one, the two, and then the third, the Princess Anne was the third. So I wanted to theorize about these historical events and I wanted to show that folklore anthropological theory can explain these events, and so I worked – this was in ’73. I first thought of this. You know, the name H.L. Mencken is probably known to you. He was a Baltimore journalist and he hated the  Eastern Shore. He just hated the South. He was very much of a snob, but he really thought that he just hated – he was prejudiced against the South. He was prejudiced against the Eastern Shore because it was Upper South. So that when the Salisbury lynching occurred, H.L. Mencken wrote one of the most scathing damnations of a region that you can ever hope to see and he blamed everyone in the Eastern Shore for this lynching.

RA:      And this is right where your university is?

PS:       Yeah, Salisbury. So that fits in with the concept of regionalism, which is a folklore theory, which is about how being a part of a region doesn’t have anything to do with class or race, but it crosses those lines and it includes everybody. And so the regionalism theory helps explain why everybody was up in arms about it, because H.L. Mencken had attacked everyone collectively. Anyway, there were just lots of things that happened that were very interesting to me in historical terms, sort of positioning to explain why the Princess Anne lynching happened. Why the third of those three happened.

RA:      So this is the one that took place on the courthouse lawn?

PS:       No, actually, the courthouse lawn one was the first.

RA:      The first one?

PS:       Yes. But I was applying various types of folklore theory and bringing together some well established theoretical ideas about folklore and using them to explain these events. And I wanted to do it because I wanted to get away from – see, I don’t condemn – I mean, I think that the lynchings themselves are horrific, but if you want to be analytic instead of just full of feeling, you want to look at these things analytically and theorize about them, and I thought that I could explain why these things happened. And I thought it would be, in a way, a service because you know, it was a big secret. Nobody talked about. Nobody talked about it. There were newspaper accounts from the day, of course, but the oral record was extremely guarded and there were families, I found out much later from talking with Sherrilyn, that never discussed this even though there were family members who had been witness to or participants in those lynchings.

RA:      And they were still alive in 1973?

PS:       Yes, and so what I saw in the archives was students interviewing older people. They might be their grandpa or something like that, or maybe a neighbor lady who remembered it, and they said, “What do you know about the Princess Anne lynching?” and because they were students, everybody wants to help somebody with their English project, right? So they got this material and there were, I’d say between 30 and 40 narratives, collectively, about all three of these events. And in the minds of the people who told the stories fifty years later, the three events were correlated and they were in causal relationship so that it corroborated this theory that I had about the threes.

RA:      I see. And the theory also included an explanation of the role of the group, the group identity.

PS:       It was a regional identity and the region was insulted by somebody from outside the region, and there were people – Mencken was with the Sun and one of the women in the oral record, in the archival record, said after describing what happened, after the Princess Anne lynching, she said, “I still won’t buy a Sun.”

RA:      Wow, and this is in 1973.

PS:       So fifty years after, there were still people who just hated the Sun. This is regionalism. This is us versus them. That’s the esoteric-exoteric factor in folklore, which is one of the most basic principles of folklore. And you see it here. So I saw all of these theoretical things coming to life right here in this one historical set of events. So where I got in trouble is I had been in Salisbury for ten years, and I was a respected member of the faculty and I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Wycomico Historical Society, and this was a great honor because this represented old white Salisbury. And anyway, I made a terrible mistake and I mistook my audience because I thought I would enlighten them and that they would be okay about it. You know, they would be able to – might not want – it doesn’t make it comfortable, but I thought they would appreciate seeing the theoretical explanation that I had for why it had happened.

RA:      Uh huh.

PS:       But you know what? As soon as I said Princess Anne lynching…

RA:      And this was the last lynching to take place in Maryland apparently?

PS:       Yeah, it was—so they stopped listening. What I had not realized was that the self-protective layer was so powerful that nothing mattered to them except the fact that I was an outsider and I was telling them about something that they didn’t want to talk about. They didn’t want me to say anything about it. And so they stopped me from saying it. They stopped the show.

RA:      Oh, really?

PS:       They rose up out of their seats and they started hollering. These were the leaders of Salisbury’s elite.

RA:      And you were an outside agitator—an outside scholar.

PS:       Well, it was the same thing that Mencken did when he condemned the entire Eastern Shore. In their minds, I was no different from H.L. Mencken. I had suddenly become the enemy rather than a guarded friend. An outsider who they still thought they could like.

RA:      He was the same Mencken who defended John T. Scopes' teaching of evolution that had taken place just a few years before that.

PS:       Right, '24 . . .

RA:      So he had attacked, you know, the South in more ways than one.

PS:       Oh yeah. He called the South “the Sahara of the Bozart.” Anyway, yeah. He was very prejudiced against the South. In any case, the irony of that whole situation was, this was 1983. I lived in Salisbury for another 20 years before leaving, before retiring.

RA:      1973.

PS:       Well, I came to Salisbury in ’73. I gave the speech in ’83, after I had been there for ten years.

RA:      Okay. You’d been there for ten – so you had really become part of the community even at that point.

PS:       Yeah, well except as an outsider. You’re never a Shoreman unless you were born there. But anyway, the point is that there were people who shunned me for the rest of their lives. Most of them had died by the time I left, but there were people who would turn their backs on me if we were in a public place like at a fair.

RA:      And were these people within the university community?

PS:       No, these were Salisbury.

RA:      This was the town and gown situation.

PS:       Old Salisbury. But you know what? Salisbury did not have the town and gown conflict that you often hear of. People love their little college. They called it STC, State Teachers College. It hadn’t been called that for a long time. But they love their little college. And so they – and in those days, when it was first opened, it was all locally staffed and faculty.

RA:      I see.

PS:       It had undergone a lot of changes since then, but they were people who did not have that antagonism between town and gown. But they did, in my case; what I did was I stepped over a line which I foolishly had failed to imagine myself doing, because I had over-estimated my status in their eyes and had forgotten that no matter how much they might like me, I was still an outsider and if I said the wrong thing, they were going to eat me alive. And that’s what they did.

RA:      Wow.

PS:       So I wrote an article, and I want to show this to you. This is the article that she quoted in some measure in her book.

RA:      It’s in the book called Sense of Place: American Regional Cultures edited by Barbara Allen and Thomas J. Schlarit for the University Press of Kentucky. Okay. Southern University.

PS:       The article is called, "Regional Consciousness as a Shaper of Local History: Examples from the Eastern Shore" and see, that’s exactly what I was theorizing about. And that is, that regionalism obscures – as folklore does this. If you have a folk framework addressing reality, it may not let you see certain things and it may have you see things that an outsider wouldn’t see.

RA:      Okay. So in a sense, the reaction to you almost reinforced and validated your theory of lynching.

PS:       Yeah, that’s the point that I made in this article, and it took me a long time.  It was ’83. This was published in 1990.

RA:      Wow. Seven years later.

PS:       Years later. And I never told anyone in Salisbury about the publication of this because I knew how much rage and pain people felt, and anger people felt at me for bringing it up in the first place.

RA:      Literally telling tales out of school.

PS:       Yeah, and so I published it and I never said anything about it for years and years and years, and I mean, I had – and talk about – this as an example of the kind of reaction I got. One of the people who came up to me combatively, I mean in an aggressive stance, was a local judge. And he was in combat mode. His fists were clenched and he was red, and he – what he said was, “Instead of talking about this, why don’t you talk about how we integrated peacefully?” And so anyway, I later found out Sherrilyn interviewed the same judge 20 years later and I don’t know what he – maybe he was older and was less on his guard or something, but she actually – she’s an investigative reporter and she knows how to do this stuff. She actually got him to talk about his own memory of the Salisbury lynching. He was a six-year-old boy when that lynching occurred and his dad was the publisher of the Daily Times, The Salisbury Daily Times, and the Daily Times’ office was on the town square, and it overlooked the courthouse lawn. And this little boy was up there in his uncle’s office – I guess it was his uncle. Anyway, he was up there in the Times’ office and he looked down upon the courthouse lawn and he witnessed that lynching. But do you know he had never told anybody about it. It was like a sickness. This was Sherrilyn Ifill’s position, which is so important, and that is that when people are – you’re as sick as your secrets. Your secrets make you sick, and when you have secrets that are affecting a whole populous, the only thing to do is to stop keeping the secret, and bring the truth out and have what is known as truth and reconciliation.

RA:      Uh huh.

PS:       And that was the point of her book. That’s right. And she said, until the entire South and other parts of America as well, have been infected deeply by lynching, because this story, the courthouse lawn in Salisbury is told again and is found again and again and again, where a black person was lynched and nobody talked about it.

RA:      And this is exactly the time in which Billie Holiday is beginning to sing “Strange Fruit.” I believe it came out right at the very tail end of the 1920s, and I think she had recorded it by about 1931.

PS:       I just don’t know.

RA:      In that area and so she’s singing a song that today we look at as almost a literary work, but at the time she’s singing it, it’s living history. It’s a topical song. It’s not listening to a classic recording by Billie Holiday from fifty years ago.

PS:       Quite right.

RA:      It’s an urgent, immediate song about things that are still happening.

PS:       Well, there were lynchings until the 1940s, and I think actually she was born in 1913, and so she would have to have been a little bit – it would have been a little bit later.

RA:      Maybe it was a little older than that.

PS:       But yeah, I think you’re right. The point that you’re making is that it was during a time that there were more lynchings between 1880 and 1920, but there were still lynchings going on clear up until the 1940s.

RA:      That’s an incredible thing that from a position in folklore you would stumble on a story that had national repercussions, I mean local, particular local color to it if you like, but with national repercussions from looking in documents having to do with proverbs and things of that sort.

PS:       Well, that’s the value of folklore archives.

RA:      Stumbling on a gold mine.

PS:       Yeah, and I sat on it for ten years and I finally released it to people I thought would be enlightened by it. But they were not enlightened. They were mad. And so I paid dearly for this experience. But you know what? Sherrilyn Ifill comes along, she sees this piece of mine, and she’s doing a book on lynching, and she is developing her own theoretical basis for truth and reconciliation, and she interviewed me on the phone in ’04 or ’05. I had just moved back to Salt Lake and she interviewed me on the phone and she said she’d seen my piece and she said she was working on a book, and when I saw the book, I was very thrilled. To tell you the truth, I didn’t realize she was going to quote me. But anyway, she did. I was surprised about that, but I was thrilled to see that she was using some historical material that I had gathered from a folklorist’s perspective and was – she probably didn’t care that much about my theoretical approach, because she’s not a folklorist. But she did see that this was a valuable piece – a valuable document to strengthen her case for truth and reconciliation. Not just in Salisbury, but everywhere.

RA:      Did any of that truth and reconciliation occur at some point?

PS:       I don’t think so. I haven’t been in Salisbury – I mean, I haven’t lived there for many years, but I don’t think that there was a national impetus toward – there would have to be a very powerful – you know, there’s the should, and can, and will. You know? And it should happen, it can happen, but will it happen? Not if people don’t have the will to do it, and I think that’s where it stopped. But I think the fact that she made the case and now it’s in print, and maybe one of these days, we can get around to doing it.

RA:      Well, we’re still dealing with untried and unsolved civil rights murders from the mid 1960s.

PS:       Right.

RA:      So we haven’t really successfully comes to terms with history on a national level either.

PS:       It’s so true.

RA:      Even with a black president in the White House.

PS:       And in fact, I think the presence of a black president actually exacerbates the worst in some people because they’re fearful of blacks still.

RA:      We’re seeing that, too, without getting too much into contemporary politics. How long was it that you gutted it out at Salisbury University after, as you put it, in the NPR interview I read, that you said your name was mud in town?

PS:       Well, I lived there for another 20 years. I had a 30-year career at Salisbury and I ran into the buzz saw after ten years, and then I had another 20 years after that. So I lived in the doghouse for 20 years.

RA:      Wow, that takes tremendous courage to . . .

PS:       Well, it was hard to accept, but I got used to it after awhile. I realized that from these people’s perspective, I was dead.

RA:      Wow—what an amazing academic career, pieced together just because of having an interest in folklore and folk music. I want to thank Polly Stewart, Professor Stewart, for agreeing to this interview for FolkWorks on Utah Phillips, Rosalie Sorrels, and the last lynching in Maryland. It’s one of the most rewarding interviews I’ve had the privilege of conducting as a writer for FolkWorks. Thank you, Professor Stewart.

PS:       Thank you.

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. At 2:00pm in the afternoon of November 5 Ross will be performing songs of Joe Hill at the San Pedro Maritime Museum in conjunction with author Bill Adler’s book signing of The Man Who Never Died, the definitive new biography of Joe Hill. And on the way home he’ll be singing Happy Trails, for Roy Rogers’ 100

 

  

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