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Prosperity Made Blacks a Target for Land Grabs

History: Specter of lynching boosted impact of lesser threats.


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, 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 wagonload of cotton to town.

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 say a few days later in a letter published by the Abbeville Press & Banner. "He was getting rich, for a Negro, and he was insolent along with it."

Crawford's prosperity had made him a target.

The success of blacks such as Crawford threatened the reign of white supremacy, said Stewart E. Tolnay, a sociologist at the University of Washington and co-author of a book on lynchings. "There were obvious limitations, or ceilings, that blacks weren't supposed to go beyond."

In the decades between the Civil War and the civil rights era, one of those limitations was owning land, historians say.

Racial violence in America is a familiar story, but the importance of land as a motive for lynchings and white mob attacks on blacks has been widely overlooked. And the resulting land losses suffered by black families such as the Crawfords 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 themselves.

For many 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 his turn at the gin that fall day in 1916, Crawford entered the mercantile store of W.D. Barksdale. Contemporary newspaper accounts and the papers of then-Gov. Richard Manning detail what followed:

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

Released on bail, 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 Crawford's cell.

At sundown, they hanged him from a solitary Southern pine.

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

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

Crawford's children inherited the farm, but Ferguson liquidated much of the rest of Crawford's property including his cotton, which went to Barksdale. Ferguson kept $5,438--more than half the proceeds--and gave Crawford's children just $200 each, estate papers show.

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. Although the farm was assessed at $20,000 at the time, a white man paid $504 for it at the foreclosure auction, land records show.

"There's land taken away and there's murder," said Johnson, of Alexandria, Va. "But the biggest crime was that our family was split up by this. My family got scattered into the night."

The former Crawford land provided timber to several owners before International Paper Corp. acquired it last year. A company spokesman said International Paper was unaware of the land's history.

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

"If you are looking for stolen black land," he said, "just follow the lynching trail."

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). "It will be done to maintain white supremacy."

In some places, the AP found, 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.

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