2021 | News

Community confronts, absorbs the lynchings in Montgomery County’s past

In 19th century, mobs dragged Black men from jail, hanged them

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Jason Green, the chair of the Montgomery County Remembrance and Reconciliation Committee, takes dirt from the ground at Welsh Park in Rockville on Sunday to fill jars to memorialize two 19th-century lynchings.

Photos by Andrew Schotz

A community on Sunday acknowledged and confronted deadly acts of racial terrorism in Montgomery County’s past — the lynching of two Black men in the 19th century.

It was an immersive remembrance. First, a group walked along the places central to the story, including the sites where the men were lynched. Mobs had overrun the county jail in Rockville, where the men were being held.

Later Sunday, a remembrance and reconciliation ceremony was held at Rockville’s Welsh Park, chosen for its proximity to both lynching sites.

The event concluded with a collection of soil from the site — filling jars with dirt to help preserve and make tangible the ugly truth.

One man is known as John Diggs-Dorsey, although his true name is not known. He was referred in accounts from the time as either Diggs or Dorsey, according to Montgomery College student Patrick Ibañez, who shared the story during Sunday’s event.

Diggs-Dorsey, who was in his 20s, was the servant of a middle-aged couple in Darnestown. When the wife accused him of raping and assaulting her, Diggs-Dorsey was apprehended and taken to jail.

On July 27, 1880, a mob pulled him from the jail, marched him in leg irons to a place along Md. 28 and hanged him from a tree.

Sidney Randolph’s death came 16 years later.

Randolph, also in his 20s, was accused of taking part in an axe attack on a Gaithersburg family that killed the family’s youngest child, according to an account that Montgomery College student Adjo Evonlah shared Sunday.

Randolph maintained his innocence, but a masked mob of white men dragged him from jail, beat him and hanged him from a tree along Md. 355 on July 4, 1896.

As the stories of the deaths were told, speakers used and emphasized the honorific “Mister” before their names, giving the men dignity that they were not afforded in life. The crowd repeated each man’s name multiple times, in the same fashion victims’ names were called out during Black Lives Matter protests across the country in the summer of 2020.

The crowd at Sunday’s remembrance and reconciliation ceremony

Those were the second and third lynchings in Montgomery County. The first was of George Peck, also in 1880. A public ceremony of remembrance and reconciliation in Peck’s honor was held in 2019.

In each case, the Montgomery County Lynching Memorial Project worked with the Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Ala. Attorney Bryan Stevenson founded the EJI in 1989 to provide legal representation to people “illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.’

Other groups and institutions throughout Montgomery County have been involved in the remembrance project, too.

County Council Member Hans Riemer, who read aloud a council proclamation during Sunday’s event, said the county government at the time was “an active participant” in a system that allowed racism to live and thrive.

Jason Green, the chair of the Montgomery County Remembrance and Reconciliation Commission, recalled his grandmother telling him how people denied that there was slavery in Maryland.

That’s why it’s so important to document crimes against humanity, so there is no doubt. “Telling this story accurately matters …,” Green said. “Those heinous acts cast a long shadow.”

Montgomery College student Adjo Evonlah adds dirt to a jar.

The remembrance weekend also included a virtual webinar with historians on Saturday called “‘Unwritten Law’: A Symposium on the Lynchings in Rockville.”

Those who came to listen to the stories of local lynchings on Sunday later lined up to dig up some of the soil. Each dropped a small sample in jars that will be stored in multiple places, including EJI’s Legacy Museum.

Elliott Spillers of the Equal Justice Initiative said lynchings often involved men, women and children being kidnapped and dragged to a central place to be hanged, beaten or stabbed.

He said it was illuminating on Sunday’s memorial walk to walk the paths that the Montgomery County mobs walked.

The Rev. Alyce R. Walker Johnson of Clinton AME Zion Church implored observers not to let the sacred weight of their experience from the event fade, but to take action against injustice that remains.

After the weight sits and settles, “get up and get busy,” she said.

The Rev. Alyce R. Walker Johnson of Clinton AME Zion Church, standing near patches where dirt was pulled out to fill jars of remembrance