Leonardtown, MD – On Maryland Emancipation Day, November 1, 2019, the St. Mary’s County Museum Division, in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative, the National Memorial for Peace & Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, the Town of Leonardtown, the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office, Unified Committee on Afro-American Contributions (UCAC), St. Mary’s County NAACP, Community Mediation Center of St. Mary’s County, St. Aloysius Gonzaga Catholic Church in Leonardtown, Together We Will, the Sierra Club, the Archdiocese of Washington, St. Mary’s Ryken High School, Maryland Commission on African American History & Culture, Tri-County All-Community Collaborative, Closing the Gap Coalition, All Saints Episcopal Parish, St. Mary’s County Libraries, Concerned Black Women and others, held a Soil Collection Ceremony in commemoration of lynching victim Benjamin Hance at Port of Leonardtown Winery Park, where Hance was said to have died in 1887.
The ceremony was one of healing and remembrance for the only documented lynching victim in St. Mary’s County – Benjamin Hance – in 1887. During the ceremony, soil was collected from the spot where Hance died and put into 2 specially-made jars. One will travel to Montgomery, Alabama, and become part of the National Memorial for Peace & Justice, and the other will stay in St. Mary’s County and become part of a traveling display to educate local citizens, visitors and students.
During the ceremony, where approximately 135 were in attendance, students from St. Mary’s Ryken High School in nearby Leonardtown recited the poem “Strange Fruit.” This was followed immediately by an original ballet performance by five other students, which visibly moved most of the attendees to tears.
A recounting of Benjamin Hance’s story was then done by a group of students accompanied by St. Mary’s County Sherriff Timothy Cameron and Coalition leader Dr. Janice Walthour, each taking their turn at the podium. This was the first time Hance’s story had been told since it was reported in the local newspaper in 1887.
Afterward, dignitaries dug up the first bits of soil and the student choir sang a stirring rendition of “On Eagles Wings,” as those present placed handfuls of soil in the two large glass jars. There was a feeling of strong emotion and solemnity in the air as the many people gathered under the trees waited their turn to deposit a handful of soil. Many attendees observed that this was not a feeling of sadness, but one of calmness and hope almost like a sense of peace came over the crowd.
Once the jars were filled, two volunteers closed the jars, placed them on the upturned soil, and stood sentinel as the ceremony continued. The final act of the evening was a procession with the wreath back to the place where the soil had been dug. Made of all-natural materials – straw and flowers held with sisal twine – the wreath was left to degrade over time into the soil, changing the present sorrow into hope for the future.
When the ceremony was over, many stayed to talk with each other, further underlining the healing and sense of community that came out of the day’s event.
Karen Stone, Manager of the St. Mary’s County Museum Division, explains the importance of the day: “Mr. Hance’s story was not an easy one to hear. But we came today to listen, to remember, to respect and to honor a man who should not have lost his life in the way he did. Mr. Hance deserved justice; he deserved a trial; he deserved what he never got. By placing the wreath here, we honor Mr. Hance and all those who suffered similar fates, and we change the sorrow of the soil into hope for the future.”