On 28 February 1919 in Annapolis, John Snowden was hanged for the alleged crime of raping and then murdering a white woman. Rumors about an amorous relationship were never proven. After a trial in Baltimore County, he was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to die.
On the day of the execution on Calvert Street, where the Arundel Center now stands, the gallows had been erected, and the noose was ready. It was a cold day, and the city was under martial law because the governor had ordered the National Guard to stand by in the event of civil disturbances.
A group of African-American women dressed in white left Asbury United Methodist Church, on West Street, and walked the three blocks to the place of execution, singing gospel songs and praying. A perimeter had been created, and the all-white National Guard stood with bayonets in hand. John Snowden was led to the gallows. As the executioner placed a hood over his head, he could be heard singing in unison with the women.
The noose was placed around his neck, and the board on which he stood was removed. John Snowden’s body dropped through the trapdoor.
An eerie silence fell over the crowd. Some blacks began singing, “Swing low, sweet chariot.” The hush was followed by movement, as blacks and whites returned home. Business as usual returned to the city.
No one was shouting “black lives matter” in 1919. There were no black judges or police officers, and in Anne Arundel County, there was no NAACP. White supremacy was the law. White people made all the decisions, including who lived and who died. White meant “boss.” As we end the last day of Black History Month, it is important to remember the injustice that was done 100 years ago today, when John Snowden was the last man to be executed in Annapolis.
The case might have been forgotten over the years, if not for a chance meeting while I was a member of the Annapolis City Council in 1985. That was when I met John Snowden’s brother, Louis. He was in his 80s at the time; we were not related. We shared the same surname. Louis Snowden told me how his 31-year-old brother had been wrongfully executed for killing a white woman. I could feel his seething anger.
After doing some research, I wrote a letter to then–Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer, who promised to look into it and never did anything. Years later, I became a member of the cabinet of Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens. On the first day of work in 1998, while entering the Arundel Center, I met an elderly black man, who was muttering to himself and appeared to be lost and confused.
I asked him if he needed help. He said no and then started talking about John Snowden, and how the Arundel Center had been where they had hung an innocent man.
This was a providential meeting. I immediately went to my new office and sent a letter to the new Governor Parris N. Glendening, asking for a posthumous pardon for John Snowden. A John Snowden Memorial Committee was formed, including the Reverend Mamie Alethia Williams, Reverend Victor O. Johnson, then-pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church Bishop Felton Edwin May, George Phelps Jr., Frederick C. Howard, Roger L. Murray, Jeff Henderson, Janice Hayes-Williams, Hazel G. Snowden (John Snowden’s niece) and me.
We started a lobbying campaign, and on 31 May 2001, Governor Glendening pardoned John Snowden posthumously. This was the first time in Maryland’s history that a black man who had died on the gallows received a pardon.
There is no plaque at the Arundel Center commemorating John Snowden, no history of this event, or any indication that an innocent black man died here. But the photo that accompanies this posting was taken minutes before John Snowden was executed.
On the eve of his death, he dictated a letter, an excerpt of which is on a memorial plaque at the Brewer Hill Cemetery on West Street, Annapolis. Mayor Ellen Moyer dedicated it in 2001. It reads in part: “I could not leave this world with a lie in my mouth.”
The day of John Snowden’s execution, the then-Evening Capital newspaper received an anonymous letter indicating that the wrong man had been executed. The writer admitted to the murder.
Eighty years later, Governor Glendening’s Parole Commission determined that there was enough evidence that John Snowden did not commit the murder. The pardon was recommended.
The story does not end there. A new group of citizens will be meeting with County Executive Steuart Pittman, and they will ask that an Education Center be funded so that stories like John Snowden’s are researched and shared with students matriculating through Anne Arundel County public schools.
Kudos to them, and to all who seek to create a world where truth and justice are found in the hearts, minds, and spirit of people determined not to leave this world with a lie in their mouths. Black History Month is a mirror—what we see, we can either correct or choose to believe the hype. Stay woke.
Carl Snowden leads the African American Caucus in Anne Arundel County. He is a life-long activist and columnist for the Capital Newspaper and The Arundel Patriot.
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