The secret history of Prince George’s County

BY JULIA DUIN — Prince George’s County has long been seen as an idyllic place for the area’s black middle class. But 100 years ago, it was far less welcoming, says Hyattsville author Richard Morris.

Richard Morris

Hyattsville author Richard Morris

Morris, who is white, may be one of the best amateur local historians of black history around. While studying medical sociology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in the 1960s, he worked in Carl Stokes’ first campaign for mayor of Cleveland. In 1967, Stokes became  the first black mayor of a major American city, and the race sharpened Morris’ interest in racial justice issues.

Morris has lived 35 years in Maryland. He and his wife, Barbara, moved to Hyattsville to be near their two daughters (and young grandchildren). One of them, music teacher Audrey Engdahl, drew the cover art for his 2010 novel Well Considered.

The book tells of a time when lynchings were occurring outside the Deep South. A black family newly arrived from California discovers the story behind the 1907 lynching of a great-grandfather. When Morris read from it last summer during a local authors’ reception at Busboys & Poets, many black listeners came up to him afterwards and thanked him for caring enough to write the book.

This darker side of the county’s history took some work to uncover. Morris spent hours going through Baltimore Sun archives, books, surveys and maps at Bowie State University and the Prince George’s County Historical Society, as well as records from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He discovered that there were some 43 recorded lynchings statewide between 1854 and 1933, the last in Salisbury. Five of them occurred in Prince George’s County, mostly in the late 1800s in Upper Marlboro, he says.

The author agreed to answer a few questions about his gripping book.

Q: Can a white author write knowledgeably about a black protagonist?

A: I don’t think literature should be segregated. Black and white authors can have black and white characters. I have been interested in local history and Maryland history for many years. I was doing some research on the first president of Bowie State when I came across a report that there had been lynchings in the area as late as 1907. I was shocked, and determined to look into it.

Q: In the book, you portrayed a lynching as almost like a block party, complete with a picnic under the corpse. White people made their children come watch the whole spectacle. How did you know these details?

A: I put together the account in the book from descriptions of lynchings in newspaper articles and books. A book called “Without Sanctuary” has photos of lynchings all over the country. In it, there are pictures of children looking up; parents were training them in racism and how blacks should be kept in line. In her book “On The Courthouse Lawn,” University of Maryland professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill describes the lynching in Salisbury: the crowd hanged the person in front of a judge’s house and then burned the body on a pyre on the courthouse lawn. The National Guard, which was called to arrest four suspected lynchers and take them to Baltimore for trial, battled a crowd of at least a thousand townspeople. Local judges later released the suspects.

Q: What else did you learn from your research?

A: This really is a Southern state. There were attempts by the legislature to take away the black vote in 1905 and again in 1910. A Howard University professor was arrested for riding in the white section of a railroad car in Cecil County in 1905. I remember attending the last tobacco auction in Upper Marlboro and seeing through thin paint the signs on the bathroom doors in the auction barn: “white” and “colored.” County census data says that between 1970 and 2000, nearly a third of a million white residents left the county – more than the population of Pittsburgh. There was massive white flight from school integration and busing. In 2010, African-Americans made up 64.5 percent of the county population, the highest since the 68.6 percent in 1810 and 62.5 percent in 1830, in slavery times.

Q: Did any of this happen in Hyattsville?

A: No lynchings that were recorded. Riversdale was a huge tobacco plantation so there was slavery here. And Jim Crow was everywhere.