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The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State

The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State

by Charles L. Chavis Jr.
The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State

The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State

by Charles L. Chavis Jr.


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The definitive account of the lynching of twenty-three-year-old Matthew Williams in Maryland, the subsequent investigation, and the legacy of "modern-day" lynchings.

On December 4, 1931, a mob of white men in Salisbury, Maryland, lynched and set ablaze a twenty-three-year-old Black man named Matthew Williams. His gruesome murder was part of a wave of silent white terrorism in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929, which exposed Black laborers to white rage in response to economic anxieties. For nearly a century, the lynching of Matthew Williams has lived in the shadows of the more well-known incidents of racial terror in the deep South, haunting both the Eastern Shore and the state of Maryland as a whole. In The Silent Shore, author Charles L. Chavis Jr. draws on his discovery of previously unreleased investigative documents to meticulously reconstruct the full story of one of the last lynchings in Maryland.

Bringing the painful truth of anti-Black violence to light, Chavis breaks the silence that surrounded Williams's death. Though Maryland lacked the notoriety for racial violence of Alabama or Mississippi, he writes, it nonetheless was the site of at least 40 spectacle lynchings after the abolition of slavery in 1864. Families of lynching victims rarely obtained any form of actual justice, but Williams's death would have a curious afterlife: Maryland's politically ambitious governor Albert C. Ritchie would, in an attempt to position himself as a viable challenger to FDR, become one of the first governors in the United States to investigate the lynching death of a Black person. Ritchie tasked Patsy Johnson, a member of the Pinkerton detective agency and a former prizefighter, with going undercover in Salisbury and infiltrating the mob that murdered Williams. Johnson would eventually befriend a young local who admitted to participating in the lynching and who also named several local law enforcement officers as ringleaders. Despite this, a grand jury, after hearing 124 witness statements, declined to indict the perpetrators. But this denial of justice galvanized Governor Ritchie's Interracial Commission, which would become one of the pioneering forces in the early civil rights movement in Maryland.

Complicating historical narratives associated with the history of lynching in the city of Salisbury, The Silent Shore explores the immediate and lingering effect of Williams's death on the politics of racism in the United States, the Black community in Salisbury, the broader Eastern Shore, the state of Maryland, and the legacy of "modern-day lynchings."

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781421442921
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date: 01/11/2022
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 523,981
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.97(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Charles L. Chavis Jr. is the director of African and African American Studies at George Mason University. He is also an assistant professor of conflict resolution and history and the founding director of the John Mitchell, Jr. Program for History, Justice, and Race at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. The national co-chair for the United States Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Movement and the vice chair of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he is the coeditor of For the Sake of Peace: Africana Perspectives on Racism, Justice, and Peace in America.

Table of Contents

Part I
Chapter 1. Matthew Williams: His Family, His Community, His Humanity
Chapter 2. "The Blood Lust of the Eastern Shore": The Crime, the Kidnapping, and the Spectacle
Chapter 3. Governor Albert C. Ritchie Confronts Judge Lynch: The Politics of Anti-Black Racism in the Free State and Beyond
Part II
Chapter 4. From Pugilist to Private Eye: A Former Prizefighter Infiltrates the Mob
Chapter 5. Truth, Lies, and Somewhere in Between: Unmasking the Mob and Breaking the System of Silence
Chapter 6. Maryland's Disgrace: The Denial of Justice
Part III
Chapter 7. A Blot on the Tapestry of the Free State
Chapter 8. Confronting the Legacy of Judge Lynch in the Age of Fracture
Afterword. A Message from a Living Relative, by Tracey "Jeannie" Jones

What People are Saying About This

Peniel E. Joseph

The Silent Shore is excellent and essential reading. By recovering the tragic story of Matthew Williams, Charles L. Chavis Jr. enriches the history of lynching in America. Deeply researched and brimming with important insights, this book locates the 'free state' of Maryland as a critical site of contestation over race, democracy, and citizenship in ways that continue to reverberate in the age of Black Lives Matter.

Aston Gonzalez

Chavis's book brings the painful truth of anti-Black violence to light and breaks the silence that, up until now, has surrounded the murder of Matthew Williams. For nearly 90 years, this lynching has haunted the Eastern Shore; now, Chavis's investigative work helps heal old wounds and opens new ones by revealing Williams's killers and those who assisted them. The detailed retelling of these fateful events—reconstructed from sources never before used by scholars—is powerful, timely, and devastating.

Sherrilyn Ifill

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. The event was a seminal one: an act of racial terrorism which, along with other lynchings on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, shaped the dynamics of race and power across the state for decades to come. 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.

W. Fitzhugh Brundage

A poignant and revelatory reflection on lynching, violence, and racism. Seemingly southern in its heritage of slavery and white supremacy, the 'Free State' of Maryland also had a robust tradition of Black activism. In this prodigiously researched and gracefully told story, Charles Chavis reveals the clash of these two traditions while tracing a surprising story of political courage and community resolve in the wake of the gruesome execution of Matthew Williams.

Claude A. Clegg III

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. This book is further enhanced by a number of excellent photographs and other illustrations, as well as some useful charts and maps.

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