Maryland students reflecting on Howard Cooper’s lynching want justice

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TOWSON, Md. — “Listen carefully,” Precious Oladipupo told the crowd gathered outside the old Baltimore County Jail in Towson. “We must not lower our heads while crying. We are beautiful, our brown skin shines.

These were the opening lines of a poem Oladipupo, 12, composed in an afternoon after reading Maya Angelou and listening to Beyoncé. She spoke quickly, but the words resonated with the few dozen people who gathered to remember Howard Cooper, a 15-year-old black boy who was lynched in Baltimore County in 1885 on his birthday. dead.

As efforts persist elsewhere to limit the teaching of America’s brutal past, what happened to Cooper, one of the youngest victims of racial terror in the state’s history, on Wednesday brought dozens of people in the former prison where he had been held to reflect on his death and his connection to social justice movements today.

Historians and advocates described harrowing details of Cooper’s lynching more than a century ago, while Baltimore County public school kids read poems exposing the killings of black people today: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd.

“I’m disappointed because my relative was mentioned in the 1800s, and here we are in 2022 and I can’t say too much has changed,” Cooper’s distant cousin Stephanie Robinson said during the interview. event hosted by Maryland. Lynching Memorial Project. “Except the style in which we are lynched.”

At least 38 black people were lynched in Maryland between 1854 and 1933, according to the Memorial Project, an organization founded in 2018 by Will Schwarz to raise awareness of the murders and push for their public recognition.

“I never heard of lynching in high school,” Schwarz said. “For me, it’s become an important thing that people understand that this happened here, and also understand how it continues to fit into our lives.”

They have seen progress; Maryland formed a historical commission to document lynchings in the state in 2020 and Governor Larry Hogan (right) granted posthumous pardons to 34 lynching victims outside the same Towson jail last year.

But Schwarz wants the memory work of Cooper and victims like him to continue.

“Part of how we get people to recognize this story is to be visible in the community,” Schwarz wrote to The Washington Post. “Events like tonight … help keep the subject in the public square.”

Details of Cooper’s life were mostly unrecorded, but public historian Jennifer Liles discerned information about his family in census records, which she shared on Wednesday.

Cooper was born to Henrietta and Joshua Cooper in Ruxton in 1870. His twin brother, Henry, died in infancy, and Howard Cooper grew up just as Baltimore County laws began to require more support for children. African-American schools there. One opened near the Coopers in the 1880s, but Howard was too old to enroll.

Cooper was convicted of assault and rape by an all-white jury, which deliberated for less than a minute in 1885, according to the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. As Cooper’s attorneys prepared an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, a mob of masked men broke into the Baltimore County Jail and hung Cooper from a sycamore tree.

“I often wonder if there were adequate schools for all the children in Baltimore County, would Howard’s life have been different?” Liles said.

For the second year, the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project partnered with teachers to invite middle school students — many of whom were barely younger than Cooper — to participate in the commemoration. Justin DePrima, an English teacher at Dunbarton Middle School, held a county-wide competition for original poetry about Cooper and racial justice and received 60 entries.

DePrima said the topic has been on the minds of his students for the past two years as protests swept the country over the killing of scores of black people by police officers.

“We’re teaching during the pandemic, and I asked the students — they’re so unmotivated at home, there are so many distractions — ‘What do you want to learn?’ “DePrima said. “They’re like, ‘We want to know more about what’s going on with Black Lives Matter.’ ”

Discussing the protests and, possibly, the history of racism and practices like lynching was tricky, DePrima said. But he felt these were topics his students needed to know in order to make progress on issues of racial injustice today. He expressed concern about attempts in other parts of the country to restrict education on the subject.

“In this region, I feel supported,” DePrima said. “But it’s a motivation. I know that I have to take additional measures to combat what is happening at the national level.

They will be back outside the Old Jail next year, when DePrima hopes to expand the poetry contest to more schools and ages. In the meantime, the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project hopes to continue holding memorials across the state.

Precious Oladipupo’s father, Bolaji Oladipupo, said he was proud to hear his daughter speak. “She said she wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “It’s one of the good ways to start.”

The rising seventh grader at Southwest Academy in Woodlawn was nervous about reading his lyrics in front of a large crowd for the first time. She did it anyway. And she plans to continue writing.

Elna M. Lemons