The James Taylor Justice Coalition of Sumner Hall is a grass roots initiative of individuals and organizations of Kent County, Maryland, founded in July 2019. It is named in memory of James Taylor, who was lynched in Chestertown in 1892 – one of at least 40 African Americans murdered by white mobs in Maryland between 1884 and 1933. The intention of the coalition is to publicly recognize that our community fell far short of our legal and moral obligations to provide equal justice for all when James Taylor became a victim of racial terrorism.
Members of the coalition are inspired by other communities and encouraged by the state law (HB#307) that established the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first of its kind in the nation. It passed unanimously in both the Maryland House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Hogan in February 2019. We also appreciate the work of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project – a 501(c)(3) corporation established “to advance the cause of reconciliation in our state by documenting the history of racial terror lynchings, advocating for public acknowledgement of these murders, and working to honor and dignify the lives of the victims.”
We believe that acknowledging the unvarnished truth about the legacy of slavery is fundamental to unifying our community in peace and harmony, enabling us to work together to address the ongoing challenge of present-day racism. In the words of Lonnie G. Bunch, III, Fourteenth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution: “Let us use history to inspire us to push a country forward, to help us believe that all things are possible and to demand a country lives up to its stated ideals.” During his 2017 visit to Sumner Hall, Dr. Bunch said: “By remembering, you not only honor and learn from the past but also shape the future.”
The James Taylor Justice Coalition is
pleased to acknowledge our current coalition partners:
Bayside Hoyas, Inc.; Social Action Committee for Racial Justice (SACRJ);
and The Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, Washington College.
Racial Terror Lynchings – Then and Now
Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Maryland Lynching Memorial Project
Equal Justice Initiative
Equal Justice Initiative Community Remembrance Project
It Was a Modern-Day Lynching: Violent Deaths Reflect a Brutal American Legacy
A Reckoning: The Lynching of James Taylor in Chestertown
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”
– Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning
Sumner Hall speaks to the importance of African American experiences from 1619 to the present day. The veterans who founded Charles Sumner Post #25, Grand Army of the Republic, subscribed to a set of values that guided their lives and inspire us today: faith,
Sumner Hall’s initiatives, exhibitions, programs and activities are designed to advance its mission of:
- preserving Sumner Hall as a place of remembrance of the contributions of African Americans who served in the U.S. Civil War;
- honoring all African American veterans of the United States Armed Services;
- promoting an understanding of the African American experience within the overall context of American History and Culture; and,
- advocating for social and racial justice for all.
The James Taylor Justice Coalition meets monthly at Sumner Hall or virtually via Zoom. To learn more, contact Sumner Hall by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by phone (443-282-0023).
THE LYNCHING OF JAMES TAYLOR – MAY 17, 1892
by Bill Leary
with research assistance from George Shivers and Jan Elvin
This short paper describes the results of our research on the May 17, 1892 lynching of James Taylor in Chestertown, Maryland. We have discovered a fairly detailed record, which is probably all there is to find. We are ready to investigate any additional leads. The main source is a thorough account by local historian and former Kent County News editor, Kevin Hemstock, who relied primarily on newspaper accounts in the two Chestertown papers plus the Baltimore Sun. We found a few additional details in other newspapers and census records. The main facts are the following:
- The lynching took place in an environment of inflamed racial tensions, both locally and nationally. 1892 was the peak year for lynchings in America.
- Scarcely a year before Taylor’s lynching, on May 12, 1891, a black man named Asbury Green was lynched in Centreville for allegedly raping a white woman. Unlike Taylor, he actually received a trial where he was found guilty and sentenced to 21 years – not death – since the judge said that he had a fairly good alibi. When rumors circulated that he would be transferred to Baltimore to serve his sentence, an angry white mob dragged him from jail and hanged him from a peach tree.
- On Christmas Eve, 1891, a black man named Thomas Campbell was beaten to death in a barroom brawl in an oyster saloon in Millington. The official inquest made public on April 22, 1892, concluded that Campbell had died of a heart attack, not as the result of being beaten over the head with beer bottles by a group of white men.
- That decision was facilitated by an autopsy conducted by Dr. James Hill. Understandably, the local black community was infuriated by this injustice, and they blamed Dr. Hill. The next day Dr. Hill was killed while riding in his dog cart to tend a patient; eight black men were charged with his murder and later convicted. This led to what Kevin Hemstock calls the most notorious murder trial in Kent County history, which attracted national attention.
- In this environment, the charge that a 10-year old white girl named Nellie Silcox had been raped on May 15, 1892, by a black man exploded like a bombshell. Nellie accused James Taylor, a 23-year old laborer born in Pond Town, Queen Anne’s County, who had worked as a hired hand on her father’s farm in Kennedyville for about two years.
- At the age of two, according to the 1870 Census, Taylor was living near Crumpton with his father Charles (30), mother Elizabeth (35), and sisters Mary (10) and Juliet (5). According to news accounts in May 1892, Taylor was described as five feet, five inches tall weighing about 150 pounds. It also was reported that Taylor had a brother and wife living in Chestertown. We found no record of Taylor’s family after the lynching.
- Taylor was found quickly the evening of May 15 and taken to the county jail, located on Cross St. in Chestertown next to the courthouse. The next night a crowd of about 600, including many local notables, gathered at the jail. About 60 hooded men armed with axes, pistols, and shotguns, forced their way into the jail but Taylor was not there. Sheriff Edward Plummer had anticipated a lynching and had sneaked Taylor onto a tugboat that steamed downriver.
- Plummer had to return Taylor to the jail on Tuesday, May 17, however, because the county commissioners refused that morning to approve funding to move the prisoner again. That evening another crowd of 500 assembled in front of the jail. A group of the lynchers met at a hotel on Spring Street to discuss their plan to lynch Taylor. A town official met with them to ask that the lynching be held outside the town limits and to ask that the body not be mutilated. After the meeting, about 60 armed and masked men forced their way into the jail, broke into Taylor’s cell, and tied a rope around his neck. They dragged him across Cross Street to a small maple tree.
- The rope was thrown over a branch about 10 feet high, which was not high enough for a “proper” hanging. Consequently, Taylor was pulled up and down repeatedly until he was strangled to death. His body was left hanging for a couple hours until it was taken down and later buried in an unmarked grave at the Alms House on Broad Neck Road.
- James Taylor maintained his innocence until the last hour of his life. When a Baltimore Sun reporter asked him if he was guilty, he replied: “No, sir, I am an innocent man and I am not afraid to say so even while I am expecting to meet my God in a few minutes.”
- An official inquest the next day concluded that Taylor had died after being hanged by a group of masked men “unknown to the jury.” No judicial proceedings were ever held to assess the guilt or innocence of Taylor or to bring to justice any of the lynchers. None were ever identified by the press.
- The only other quasi-official response to the lynching came later that year in October, when Circuit Court Judge Joseph A. Wickes made a statement to the grand jury convened to hear the charges against those accused of murdering Dr. Hill, which was published in the Kent News.
“A few weeks after the murder of Dr. Hill another lawless act . . . was committed in this county. I refer to the mob of disguised men, which on the night of the 17th of last May, broke into the county jail and took by violence from the custody of the sheriff, a prisoner, and hanged him a short distance from the prison. The man who was thus summarily dealt with was charged with a heinous crime . . . [but] that did not justify a band of lawless men, in setting at defiance the law of the land or in depriving their victim of that protection and those rights which the constitution of the State guarantees to the most humble servant. . . . In defiance of these plain provisions of the constitution, the mob to which I have referred assumed the right to punish, without indictment or trial, a prisoner who was at the time in the custody of the law and under its protection. Such acts cannot be excused or tolerated. . . . Lynching is a reproach to any community; it impeaches the adequacy of our institutions for the punishment of crime; it brutalizes those who participate in it and brings shame and disgrace upon our Christian civilization. It is my duty to say to you, that all who participated in committing that act are guilty of murder, and it is your duty to ascertain, if possible, who are the guilty parties and to indict them for the crime which they have committed.”
Needless to say, no one was ever charged.
- We found only a few tidbits documenting the reaction of the African American community to Taylor’s lynching.
- The Kent News reported that a group of African American men assembled in the “market square” at the time of the lynching, but the reporter thought they were there only to observe.
- Janes Church officials reportedly declined to allow Taylor’s burial at their cemetery on Quaker Neck Road.
- The Baltimore Sun reported on May 19 that “Taylor was buried at the almshouse today. The colored people are very indignant at the affair, but nothing has developed here yet. Dan Wright was committed to jail for denouncing the affair and striking his fist in a white man’s face and being generally disorderly.” According to the 1880 Census Wright was a 38-year old single man living on College Avenue.
- In late May a group of “Colored Citizens” met in Morgan’s Creek Neck (Cork Town) to respond to a letter sent to them regarding threats supposedly made to certain white men in Kennedyville. The response – signed by J.T. Stryckning, Isaac Caulk, and Fred Turner – assured the white men that “Prejudice, retaliation, and threats are not the dominant spirit of the intelligent and Christian colored citizens of Kent county.”
- The response of most Kent County whites was probably reflected in a report by the Baltimore Sun on May 20. “The citizens of Kennedyville held a meeting in the village last night and formed a vigilance committee. Notices were sent to the brother and family of the lynched negro and others of that neighborhood to leave under penalty. The colored folks were also warned against congregating on the crossroads in the village and making it unsafe for ladies to pass.”