LEONARDTOWN, MD – The St. Mary’s County Just Society Scholarship was awarded to three St. Mary’s County high school students for their artistic submissions associated with racial justice as it relates to the lynching of Benjamin Hance in 1887, the only recorded lynching in St. Mary’s County’s history.
This year’s inaugural scholarship invited students currently enrolled in a St. Mary’s County public, private or home school high school program to create an original work of art that focuses on a “Just Society” as a community remembrance of the lynching of Benjamin Hance. The categories included performing arts, visual arts or language arts.
A committee of community partners developed the criteria and judged each submission based on those standards. The organizers are proud to announce the two runners-up winners Arden Mclearen and Katelyn Freese, both students at St. Mary’s Ryken High School here in Leonardtown, and the overall winner Cheyenne Toma, a student at Leonardtown High School.
Arden’s clay sculpture depicts clay figures “taking action,” and it is loving action. They seem to represent Hance’s human community, so they are an extension of the victim himself – the focus is not on the perpetrators. The acting figures are gray – not brown – so they may be meant to be purposefully ambiguous as to racial identity, suggesting they could be anyone, even a remorseful perpetrator who wishes to undo the deed. At the same time, it does not gloss over the sadness and irrevocability of the deed. It is very interesting in concept and design. It allows ambiguity but seems to reflect thoughtful decisions and emotional involvement. The artist had a vision and was able to realize it.
Katelyn’s mixed media collage is clear in concept, visually effective, and skillfully done. The thematic motif of eyes is powerful, and it suggests a somewhat diverse community of eyes through her skillful use of color. It makes the viewer wonder who saw what and how they felt about what they saw. The central noose with its crying eyes is especially powerful. The words painted on the frame “no justice, no verdict” fits with the suggestion that many eyes saw the crime, yet the perpetrators are hidden and justice is denied.
The overall winner submitted a piece that crossed category lines, as both language arts and performance art. Cheyenne Tomawrote a very complex and moving set of lyrics, with an original and poetic use of language. Titled Tainted Grounds, the song tells Benjamin Hance’s story, as well as many untold stories of injustice not just in Maryland but in America. The use of the cello and violin to create the mood for this piece is excellent, as is the overall musical concept. The emotional approach is wonderful, and the lyrics are highly original and full of intellectual heft.
The overall winner will receive $500 and the two runners-up will each receive $250. The winners are encouraged to use these funds to further their artistic pursuits. The funds for these scholarships were generously donated by the Friends of the St. Clement’s Island & Piney Point Museums, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Unified Committee for Afro-American Contributions (UCAC), Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative (SMECO), the St. Mary’s County Libraries, Lisa & Michael Blackwell and Barbara Thompson.
On Nov. 1, 2021, the Equal Justice Initiative in concert with St. Mary’s County partners installed a historic marker at the Old Jail Museum recognizing Leonardtown’s role in the history of lynching, in particular, that of Benjamin Hance, a 22-year-old Black St. Mary’s County man who was killed by a mob of town residents. This marker is the culmination of a 3-year project between the St. Mary’s County Museum Division, the Equal Justice Initiative, and other community organizations. The three winners were announced and recognized at this event.