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By: St. Mary’s Ryken High School
On Maryland Emancipation Day, Nov. 1, 2019, members of the St. Mary’s Ryken Black Student Union (BSU) and Fine Arts department participated in a solemn and emotional 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, the soil was collected from the spot where Hance died and put into 2 specially-made jars. One traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, and will 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.
BSU students played a very important role in the ceremony as they recounted Benjamin Hance’s story. Following the story, SMR fine arts students performed a dance and song to commemorate Hance’s experiences.
“Having the opportunity to participate in such an important event means a lot to me,” said junior Brent Bradford. “It brings pain to my heart that anyone would have their life robbed of them in such a horrific way. I am so glad that I was able to commemorate Benjamin Hance through my gifts and talents. I applaud those who assisted in bringing the ceremony together because it was absolutely beautiful and touching.” Brent has a role in the dance routine and is a member of the Black Student Union.
Freshman Kendall Simms noted: “It was my pleasure to be apart of the ceremony to honor Benjamin Hance’s life. Even with the small part, I had of telling his huge story, it was an honor.”
“Guests were very moved by the dance, which added an emotional depth to the ceremony that I could not have predicted,” said Karen Stone, Manager of the St. Mary’s County Museum Division.
The ceremony was spearheaded by 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, 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 and Concerned Black Women and others.
Stone said that a soil collection ceremony is significant. “It is said soil holds the memories of the things that happened upon it. So, by collecting the soil at the spot where this act happened and placing it in a memorial, we acknowledge and never forget that this did indeed occur.” She continues: “We then laid a wreath, which will eventually decay into the same soil, to contain happier memories for the future.”
The Equal Justice Initiative, which has been partnering with other organizations to collect similar jars of soil from around the country at other such sites and bringing them to the memorial, says on their website that “more than 4,400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. Millions more fled the South as refugees from racial terrorism, profoundly impacting the entire nation. Until now, there has been no national memorial acknowledging the victims of racial terror lynchings. On a six-acre site atop a rise overlooking Montgomery, Alabama, the national lynching memorial is a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terror in America and its legacy.”
Speakers and participants at the ceremony include Dr. Kyrone Davis, Scholar-Practitioner of Executive Leadership in Human and Organizational Learning, who will give the keynote speech, St. Mary’s County Commissioner President Randy Guy, Leonardtown Mayor Daniel Burris, St. Mary’s County Sheriff Timothy Cameron, Fr. David Beaubien of St. Aloysius Church, Dr. Janice Walthour from the St. Mary’s County NAACP, Gabrielle Daniels from the Equal Justice Initiative, and others
Ms. Stone believes such an event will bring about community awareness to such difficult topics, much of which many residents in the region know nothing about. “It was such an honor to be asked by Dr. Janice Walthour from the St. Mary’s County NAACP to head up this Soil Collection Project. Though it is just one small part of her ‘Building Bridges: Dismantling Racism SOMD’ initiative, this ceremony gives us an opportunity to connect with other statewide and national groups like the Equal Justice Initiative and the Maryland Lynching Project to face and discuss these issues head-on and hopefully bring about some healing after all these years.”
For more information regarding the ceremony, please visit Facebook.com/DraydenSchoolhouse, or for more information about the Equal Justice Initiative, visit https://eji.org.