Monday, December 03, 2001

Property made blacks targets

Sheriff often helped mobs, lynchings

By Dolores Barclay, Todd Lewan and Allen G. Breed
The Associated Press

        As a little girl, Doria Dee Johnson often asked about the man in the portrait hanging in an aunt's living room — her great-great-grandfather. “It's too painful,” her elderly relatives would say, and they would look away.

        A few years ago, Ms. Johnson, now 40, went to look for answers in the rural town of Abbeville, S.C.

        She learned that in his day, the man in the portrait, Anthony P. Crawford, was one of the most prosperous farmers in Abbeville County. That is, until Oct. 21, 1916 — the day the 51-year-old farmer hauled a wagon-load of cotton to town.

        Mr. Crawford “seems to have been the type of negro who is most offensive to certain elements of the white people,” Mrs. J.B. Holman would write a few days later in a letter published by the Abbeville Press and Banner. “He was getting rich, for a negro, and he was insolent along with it.”

"Gnawing fear'

               Land as a motive for lynchings and white mob attacks on blacks has been overlooked. The resulting land losses suffered by black families have gone largely unreported.

        The Associated Press documented 57 violent land takings in an 18-month investigation of black land loss in America. Sometimes, black landowners were attacked by whites who just wanted to drive them from their property. In other cases, the attackers wanted the land.

        For decades, successful blacks “lived with a gnawing fear ... that white neighbors could at any time do something violent and take everything from them,” said Loren Schweninger, a University of North Carolina expert on black landownership.

        While waiting at the gin that day in 1916, Mr. Crawford entered the mercantile store of W.D. Barksdale. Contemporary newspaper accounts and the papers of then-Gov. Richard Manning detail what followed:

        Mr. Barksdale offered Mr. Crawford 85 cents a pound for his cottonseed. Mr. Crawford replied that he had a better offer. Mr. Barksdale called him a liar; Mr. Crawford called the storekeeper a cheat. Three clerks grabbed ax handles, and Mr. Crawford backed into the street, where the sheriff arrested him — for cursing a white man.

        Released on bail, Mr. Crawford was cornered by about 50 whites who beat and knifed him. The sheriff carried him back to jail. A few hours later, a deputy gave the mob the keys to Mr. Crawford's cell.

        At sundown, he was hanged.

Family tries to stay intact


        No one was ever tried for the killing. In its aftermath, hundreds of blacks fled.

        Two whites were appointed executors of Mr. Crawford's estate, which included 427 acres of prime cotton land. One was Andrew J. Ferguson, cousin of two of the mob's ringleaders, the Press and Banner reported.

        Mr. Crawford's children inherited the farm, but Mr. Ferguson liquidated much of the rest of the property. Ferguson kept $5,438 — more than half the proceeds — and gave Mr. Crawford's children just $200 each, estate papers show.

        Mr. Crawford's family struggled to hold the farm together but eventually lost it when they couldn't pay off a $2,000 balance on a bank loan.

Decades of lynchings


        The former Crawford land was acquired by International Paper Corp. last year. A company spokesman said International Paper was unaware of the land's history

        The Tuskegee Institute and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have documented more than 3,000 lynchings between 1865 and 1965. Many of those lynched were property owners, said Ray Winbush, director of Fisk University's Race Relations Institute.

        Some white officials condoned the violence; a few added threats of their own.

        “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched,” James K. Vardaman declared while governor of Mississippi (1904-1908). In some places, single families were targeted. Elsewhere, entire black communities were destroyed.

        At the start of the 20th century, Birmingham, Ky., a tobacco center with a predominantly black population, became a battleground in a five-year siege by white marauders called Night Riders.

        On March 8, 1908, about 100 armed whites tore through town, shooting seven blacks, three of them fatally. The AP documented the cases of 14 black landowners who were driven from Birmingham. Together, they lost more than 60 acres of farmland and 21 city lots to whites — many at sheriff's sales, all for low prices.

        John Scruggs and his young granddaughter were killed in Birmingham that night. Property records show that the lot Mr. Scruggs had bought for $25 in 1902 was sold for nonpayment of taxes six years after the attack. A white man bought it for $7.25 (or about $144 in today's dollars).

        Coming Dec. 9: A legal maneuver is used to strip black Americans of land.



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