The Knapp Papers: Citizen Involvement in the Giles-Johnson Case

Racial injustice in the state of Maryland has a long, painful history. This semester, while working as a student assistant for Special Collections, I processed the Harold A. and Barbara B. Knapp papers. This archival collection sheds light on an example of this difficult history and demonstrates that everyday citizens can play a role in challenging racially-motivated law enforcement and legal decisions.

The Harold A. and Barbara B. Knapp papers document a white couple’s involvement with the Giles-Johnson Defense Committee. This volunteer group of about sixty Montgomery County citizens worked for the defense of James and John Giles and Joseph Johnson, three African-American men accused of raping a white, teenaged girl in 1961. The Knapp papers were donated by Barbara Knapp in May 2018, and complement an existing collection at UMD, the Giles-Johnson Defense Committee records. The Knapp papers collection is useful for researchers studying race relations in Maryland, sexual assault cases, and capital punishment.  The collection also provides important documentation on civil rights, citizen action, and community activism.

giles image

John Giles (left) and James Giles (right) at the Maryland Penitentiary in December 1963. Harold A. and Barbara B. Knapp papers.

The collection includes correspondence, reports, notes, legal documents, clippings, a scrapbook, and audio recordings related to the Knapps’ involvement with the Giles-Johnson case.  I rehoused the materials in acid-free folders, removed metal fasteners, and separated newspaper clippings from other papers with acid-free paper. After establishing physical control over the collection, I arranged the materials into four series: working files, Giles-Johnson legal documents, related cases, and audio recordings. I then creating a finding aid for the collection with a Historical Note, Scope and Contents Note, and series descriptions. The finding aid for the Knapp papers will eventually be available online.

Continue reading