Once Upon a Time in Montgomery County

Once Upon a Time in Montgomery County

A family terrorized in their beds. A young white girl, brutally killed. An itinerant black man, who didn't stand a chance... It was the last lynching, an event long forgotten in the area's history

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Sadie Buxton’s gravestone is a small obelisk, no more than 3 feet high, in the Forest Oak Cemetery in front of the county fairgrounds in Gaithersburg. Carved into its base is this inscription: “I take this little lamb, says he, and place her on my breast. Protection she shall find in me. In me, be ever blest.”  

She was just 7 when she died on June 5, 1896, the victim of a brutal ax attack that wounded her parents and 16-year-old sister. Savage though the slaying was, the modest marker gives no hint of her violent death, or of the man hanged by a lynch mob in its aftermath.    

Sidney Randolph, the alleged attacker, was buried in a “plain pine coffin…without any ceremony” in the cemetery near the county poorhouse, according to an account in The Washington Post shortly after the lynching. He was never legally tried or convicted. Instead, this itinerant laborer from Georgia was strung up from a chestnut tree in the woods behind train tracks that still parallel Route 355, three-quarters of a mile from the old county jail in Rockville and four miles from the Gaithersburg cemetery. 

Sadie was an innocent white girl; Randolph was an innocent black man, or so he protested right up until he died on Independence Day 115 years ago. His was one of 33 reported lynchings in Maryland, and the last of three in Montgomery County—shameful incidents that have been virtually forgotten as part of this county’s past.

Today, the county of 971,777 is largely urban and suburban, known for its progressive politics and multicultural population. For the first time in its history, whites are in the minority, according to the 2010 census. 

But back then, it was overwhelmingly rural, with only 20,563 residents in 1870, of whom 13,128 were white and 7,434 “colored,” and one “Chinese.” By 1900, the total had increased by roughly 50 percent, to 30,407 inhabitants. In Maryland, as throughout the South, Jim Crow was the law of the land, Confederate veterans were venerated and elected to office, and former slaves and their children lived segregated and often subsistence lives in tiny back-road communities, such as Sugarland, Jerusalem and Big Woods.

Still, Maryland ranked low among Southern states in lynchings. Between 1882 and 1965, 531 people were lynched in Randolph’s home state of Georgia, behind only Mississippi, with 581. Throughout the South, whites were lynched, too, but much less frequently. All of those lynched in Montgomery County were black men accused of attacking white women. In each case, an inquest concluded that the lynch victim died of “strangulation by persons unknown.”  

From a Northern perspective, the Washington, D.C., area might as well have been the Deep South. “The region around this city, the capital of the Nation, has become notorious for the punishment of colored criminals by Lynch law, and for a public sentiment which supports those who in this way administer what they believe justice demands,” The New York Times reported in 1880, the year George Peck and John Diggs were lynched in January and July, respectively. Area newspaper accounts clearly supported the local sentiment.

“HUNG BY A MOB. A Brutal Negro Lynched for Attempted Outrage,” blared the headline in the Jan. 13, 1880, Washington Post. The one-paragraph, page-two story referred to Peck as “a disreputable negro.” In its delicately worded account, the Post said Peck “attempted to outrage Ada Hayes,” 11. Newspapers then would not use the word “rape.”

Peck was taken by an officer to the Odd Fellows hall in Poolesville, where a large crowd of “excited men” gathered. Intending to take Peck to his own home for safekeeping, the officer stopped with his captive at a nearby store. The men “ran in, overpowered and blindfolded the officer, and took Peck to a field opposite and hung him” from a locust tree in front of a Presbyterian house of worship. At 10 the next morning, the sheriff cut down the body “as people were on their way to church,” according to the Post account. 

Nearly seven months later, on July 26, a front-page headline in the Post screamed: “A NEGRO’S BRUTAL CRIME…Outraging His Employer’s Wife in the Former’s Absence.” The employee was John Diggs, 23, who worked on James Tschif- fely’s farm near Darnestown. According to The New York Times, Diggs dragged Tschiffely’s wife “upstairs by the hair, and compelled her to remain with him until morning, beating and otherwise abusing her in a horrible manner.” In the morning, he halted her escape and beat her, the paper said, finally running away while she “painfully” made her way to a neighbor’s house. 

“It was well understood that Diggs’ capture would be immediately followed by his death,” the Times said. Caught in what is now Olney, he was taken to jail in Rockville. The lynching was delayed only by a message from the victim’s husband, who asked that the hanging wait “until he could reach the place.”

Reporters waited with the crowd. Tschiffely arrived at 3 a.m., and a group of 40 men overpowered the sheriff and his deputies. Diggs was taken to a cherry tree a mile from the jail and, with the noose around his neck, urged to confess. “All you can do is hang me,” he replied, according to the Times. “What’s the use of saying anything? You will hang me anyhow.” 

The leader of the lynch mob, identified in the newspaper only as “the Captain,” led the men in a prayer for the condemned man as they stood in a circle with hats in hands. Four men held Diggs while the noose was adjusted, “and in a few minutes there was nothing there to tell the story except a dead body hanging to a tree.” 

The lynching of Sidney Randolph, 28, and the events preceding it were big news in the Washington papers and were reported in the Baltimore, Frederick and Cumberland dailies, as well. Randolph, described as 6 feet tall and muscular, was one of 78 black Americans lynched in 1896. It was the same year the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson made “separate but equal” the law of the land.

The attack on the Buxton family occurred shortly before dawn on May 25. Richard Buxton, the father, managed to get off a shot after he was struck on the head, but he missed the intruder. Buxton’s wife, “Teeney,” was also injured. Carroll, their only son, who had just turned 2, hid under a bed and was unscathed. But daughters Maude and Sadie were both critically injured. Sadie’s skull was crushed, exposing brain matter. Maude had a deep gash in her scalp and a facial cut. She would survive, with a steel plate in her head the rest of her life. But Sadie would not.

The day after the attack, Randolph and another black man, George Neale, were arrested and taken to Baltimore to prevent a lynching. Neale, 29, was suspected of seeking revenge against Buxton, who had turned him in for an assault years earlier, according to the Washington Evening Times. He had recently been released from prison. Neale, who denied even knowing Randolph, said he was asleep when the attack occurred. Why Randolph was arrested is unclear.  

That night, with the accused men safely in jail in Baltimore, as many as 1,000 “angry and excited men from all sections of the county” crowded the streets of Rockville, according to the May 26 Washington Post. For several days, the story made the front page of the Washington papers. The Washington Times led its May 27 edition with news that there was more to the case than had been reported, that there were white suspects and that shocking revelations were to come—though they never did. 

The evidence against the two men was circumstantial, hinging in Randolph’s case on conflicting statements as to his whereabouts the day before the incident. He claimed to have been in Georgetown; others said they saw him around Gaithersburg. The Buxton family minister also asserted that footprints leading from the Buxton house matched Randolph’s shoe size. And “blood” was found on Randolph’s undershirt—though it turned out to be red paint. 

The problem was that Randolph lacked a motive, and Washington detectives brought into the case were unconvinced of his guilt, according to newspaper accounts. 

Randolph was taken to Washington’s old Garfield Hospital, where the Buxtons were recuperating. Mrs. Buxton could not identify him, nor could she say if her assailant was white or black—though her husband said he was “the right man.” 

Two weeks after being arrested and taken to Baltimore, both men “unexpectedly” were brought to the Montgomery county seat at 10 p.m. by train, according to the Post. A few days later, on June 12, a coroner’s jury ruled that a blow from the ax had caused Sadie’s death, even as it concluded that Neale was innocent. He was released the next morning. But Randolph was held for the grand jury, scheduled to meet in November. To prevent a lynching, the sheriff moved Randolph each night from the jail to an unknown location.

Even so, Randolph was in his cell at 2:30 a.m. on July 4 when the jailer answered a knock on the door. Twenty or 30 men wearing red handkerchiefs as masks forced him to turn over the cell key, dragged Randolph out “like a dog,” the Post said, placed him in a wagon and drove off. 

Randolph was strung up from a small chestnut tree in the woods off Frederick Road, now Route 355, literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Today, the area is still Rockville’s backside, a bleak neighborhood of auto body shops adjoining Lincoln Park, a historically black neighborhood. 

Though no one was arrested for the lynching, rumor had it the perpetrators were from Gaithersburg. The governor offered a $1,000 reward for their apprehension. That offended some local whites, but public opinion was divided. Washington papers were particularly incensed by the lynching, in contrast to some of the earlier coverage. In a July 8 report from Rockville, the Post called the lynching a “shameful affair.” Its headline noted that Richard Buxton, Sadie’s father and a Gaithersburg town commissioner, also “deplores the outrage.” 

The Randolph lynching occurred several days after Joseph Cocking, a white man, was lynched in Charles County for allegedly killing his wife and sister-in-law. That fact bolstered those who argued that injustice was color blind. 

On July 20, the Washington Times condemned the lynching as “a crime against the community as a whole,” but argued that “there is not a scintilla of evidence to indicate that the lynching of Randolph was prompted by race hatred and prejudice.” The lynching was instigated instead, the paper said, by the real murderer of Sadie Buxton. “Randolph was made the vicarious sacrifice for another man’s crime.”

The county paid for the plain coffin in which Randolph was buried “near the almshouse,” according to the Post, just south of today’s downtown Rockville. In the late 20th century, the county sold the property for development, and 38 remains, presumably including Randolph’s, were moved to Parklawn Cemetery, a few miles away. A cemetery employee said they were re-interred in Section 18 with “no markers, no nothing.”  

A search for “Sidney Randolph” or “lynching” in the online database of Peerless Rockville, the city’s nonprofit historic preservation organization, yields nothing today about the incident. 

George McDaniel, now the executive director of a historic plantation in Charleston, S.C., studied Montgomery County’s black communities in the late 1970s, but never heard of it or the other lynchings in the county. “Nobody even said an attack happened here by a marauding group of whites,” he says. 

Nina Clark, 93, who now lives in Rockville but grew up in Jerusalem near Poolesville, taught in the county’s segregated school system and co-authored a book about it. She is widely regarded as the best living resource on local black history. The lynchings were news to her, as well. “I was surprised when you mentioned it,” she says. “I had a great-uncle who had been a slave. He was the only one who talked about the old days. It was too painful, I guess.” 

Two weeks after Randolph’s death, the Gaithersburg commissioners voted to hire a night patrolman “to preserve the peace” because of “the agitated state of this community owing to the assault on the Buxton family and the subsequent lynching,” according to minutes of that July meeting.

The Buxtons lived across the road from the cemetery where they now lie. “Teeney” had another child, Grace Marguerite, in 1897. The family eventually moved to the District, where they lived out their lives. Richard Buxton died in 1923; his wife, four years later. Maude, the other daughter who almost died, lived until 1956; and Carroll, an engineer, until 1962. Grace, who worked at the Veterans Bureau, lived to be 93 and died in 1990. Sisters Grace and Maude never married; for some time they lived together in the District at 1207 Park Road NW in Apt. 204. 

There are still Buxtons in Montgomery County. Stephen Buxton, 68, a distant cousin, lives on a 20-acre farm in the county’s northern end, near Damascus. Before retiring on disability many years ago, he was a data processor for the county. He now grows hay and corn and dabbles in family history, “enough to keep me busy.” He came late to this episode in his family’s past, learning about it from his aunt, Ada Mae Buxton Beacht, who worked for the city of Gaithersburg, and from his own research. “I was doing genealogy in my 20s and 30s and stumbled across it,” he says of the tragic tale. “I never knew about this as a boy growing up.”

In a two-page paper he wrote about the incident in 1984, Buxton notes: “As Christians, we know that God takes care of all things in His own time. Not only are these family members together in burial in Forest Oak Cemetery, but it is comforting to believe that today, they are together in Heaven with Little Sadie. I like to believe that this is true, that the Lord has brought this story to a very happy ending as He always does for those who love and trust in His grace and mercy.”

As for Randolph, the man the mob judged, convicted and hanged, Buxton says: “I certainly deplore the lynching, whether he was guilty or not. If you don’t have a trial, you don’t always know.”  

Eugene L. Meyer is a contributing editor for the magazine.

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