Landownership made blacks targets of violence and murder

Rosie Fields poses in her home with son, Marion Edward Stephens, in Cincinnati. In the 1950s, the family fled their home in Yazoo City, Miss., when they feared for their lives from the local sheriff. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

By Todd Lewan, Dolores Barclay and Allen G. Breed
Associated Press, Dec. 3, 2001

Part Two of a series. Part 1 available in The Authentic Voice

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 wagon-load 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 and 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 – more than half of the 107 land takings found in an 18-month investigation of black land loss in America. The other cases involved trickery and legal manipulations.

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.

Norman Stephens, right, shown in a 1939 photo owned by the family in Flora, Miss. Stephens and his family fled Mississippi in 1950, abandoning their property after a clash with the local sheriff.

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. Sundown found them at a baseball field at the edge of town. There, they hanged Crawford 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 appointed executors of 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.

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, according to land records.

“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. Jenny Boardman, a company spokeswoman, said International Paper was unaware of the land’s history. When told about it, she said: “The Crawford story is tragic. It causes you to think that there are facets of our history that need to be discussed and addressed.”

Other current owners of property involved in violent land takings also said they knew little about the history of their land, and most were disturbed when informed about it.

The Tuskegee Institute and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have documented more than 3,000 lynchings between 1865 and 1965, and believe there were more. Many of those lynched were property 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.

Today, Birmingham, Ky., lies under a floodway created in the 1940s. But at the start of the 20th century, it was a tobacco center with a predominantly black population, and a battleground in a five-year siege by white marauders called Night Riders.

An undated photo of July Perry, a Ocoee, Fla., resident lynched in November 1920. (Photo credit: Orlando Sentinel via AP)

On the night of March 8, 1908, about 100 armed whites tore through town on horseback, 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, The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported at the time. Property records show that the city lot Scruggs had bought for $25 in 1902 was sold for nonpayment of taxes six years after the attack. A local white man bought it for $7.25 (or about $144 in today’s dollars).

Land that had belonged to other blacks went for even less. John Puckett’s 2 acres sold for $4.70; Ben Kelley’s city lot went for just $2.60.

In Pierce City, Mo., 1,000 armed whites burned down five black-owned houses and killed four blacks on Aug. 18, 1901. Within four days, all of the town’s 129 blacks had fled, never to return, according to a contemporary report in The Lawrence Chieftain newspaper. The AP documented the cases of nine Pierce City blacks who lost a total of 30 acres of farmland and 10 city lots. Whites bought it all at bargain prices.

Eviline Brinson, whose house was burned down by the mob, sold her lot for $25 to a white woman after the attack. Brinson had paid $96 for the empty lot in 1889, county records show.

The attacks on Birmingham and Pierce City were part of a pattern in Southern and border states in the first half of the 20th century: lynchings and mob attacks on blacks, followed by an exodus of black citizens, some of them forced to abandon their property or sell it at cut-rate prices.

“Black landowners were put under a tremendous amount of pressure, from authorities and otherwise, to give up their land and leave,” said Earl N.M. Gooding, director of the Center for Urban and Rural Research at Alabama A&M University. “They became refugees in their own country.”

For example, the AP found that 18 black families lost a total of 330 acres plus 48 city lots when they fled Ocoee, Fla., after a 1920 Election Day attack on the black community.

Some were able to sell their land at a fair price, but others such as Valentine Hightower were not. He parted with 52 acres for $10 in 1926, property records show.

Today the land lost by the 18 Ocoee families, not including buildings now on it, is assessed at more than $4.2 million. (Officials assess property for tax purposes, and the valuation is usually less than its market value.)

Sometimes, individual black farmers were singled out and attacked by bands of white farmers known as the Whitecaps. Operating in several Southern and border states around the turn of the 20th century, they were intent on driving blacks from their land and discouraging other blacks from acquiring it, said historian George C. Wright, provost at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“The law wouldn’t help,” he said. “There was just no one to turn to.”

Whitecaps often nailed notes with crudely drawn coffins to the doors of black landowners, warning them to leave or die.

The warning to Eli Hilson of Lincoln County, Miss., came on Nov. 18, 1903, when Whitecaps shot up his house just hours after his new baby was born, The Brookhaven Leader newspaper reported at the time. Hilson ignored the warning.

A month later, the 39-year-old farmer was shot in the head as he drove his buggy toward his farm, the newspaper said. The horse trotted home, delivering Hilson’s body to his wife, Hannah.

She struggled to raise their 11 children and work the 74-acre farm, but she could not manage without her husband. Hannah Hilson lost the property through a mortgage foreclosure in 1905. According to land records, the farm went for $439 to S.P. Oliver, a member of the county board of supervisors. Today, the property is assessed at $61,642.

It wasn’t just Whitecaps and Night Riders who chased blacks from their land. Sometimes, officials did it.

In Yazoo County, Miss., Norman Stephens and his twin brother, Homer, ran a trucking business, hauling cotton pickers to plantations.

One day in 1950, a white farmer demanded that Stephens immediately deliver workers to his field, Stephens’ widow, Rosie Fields, said in a recent interview.

Stephens explained he had other commitments and promised to drop off the men later, his wife said. The farmer fetched the sheriff. That evening, the brothers found themselves locked in a second-floor room at the county jail. They squeezed through a window, leaped to the ground and ran.

Fields, now 83, said her husband later told her why: They had overheard the sheriff, who has since died, talking about where to hide their bodies. Once home, Fields said, Stephens and his brother packed their bags and flagged down a bus to Ohio. A year later, she and her five children joined them.

For a decade, the family made mortgage and property tax payments on the house they left behind, records show. But it was hard to keep up, and they never dared to return, Fields said. Finally, in the 1960s, they stopped paying and lost the house they had purchased for $700 in 1942.

One aim of racial violence was to deny blacks the tools to build wealth, said John Hope Franklin, chairman of President Clinton’s Advisory Board on Race.

Paula J. Giddings, a Duke University historian, said that “by the 1880s and 1890s, a significant number of blacks began to do very well in terms of entrepreneurship and landownership, and it simply couldn’t be tolerated.”

In 1885, Thomas Moss, Henry Stewart and Calvin McDowell opened the Peoples’ Grocery Store in a largely black Memphis neighborhood known as The Curve. Across the street was another grocery, owned by a white man, W.H. Barret.

On Saturday, March 5, 1892 , two boys – one black, the other white – squabbled over a game of marbles near the store, which led to a dispute between their fathers. Barret went to the police, claiming the black shopkeepers were instigating trouble.

Contemporary newspaper accounts describe what ensued:

Some townspeople warned the shopkeepers that a white mob was planning to attack their store. So when nine deputy sheriffs in civilian clothing tried to enter after dark Sunday to deliver arrest warrants, they were taken for intruders and fired on. Three deputies were wounded. Moss, Stewart and McDowell were jailed.

Early Wednesday morning, a mob of about 75 whites yanked the three men from their cells while other whites looted the grocery.

In the aftermath, more than 2,000 blacks streamed out of Memphis, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. Creditors liquidated whatever stock the looters left behind, and the store landed in the hands of John C. Reilly, a deputy sheriff.

Over the years, the property has been resold many times, and today is the site of a small business, the Panama Grocery.

As for the three store owners, their bullet-torn bodies turned up in a ravine near the Wolf River, The Memphis Appeal-Avalanche reported at the time. When Moss’ body was found, his hands were clenched, the newspaper noted.

They were filled with grass and the brown clay of Tennessee.


EDITOR’S NOTE – Associated Press Writers Ron Harrist and Sara Silver contributed to this report.

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Torn from the Land is characterized by strong research, attention to detail, sound historical context, and compelling quotes. Central to the series’ power is the meticulous investigative reporting of AP reporters Dolores Barclay and Todd Lewan and the decision of editor Bruce DeSilva to allow into the stories only cases that could be proven beyond doubt. The story creates a fresh awareness about the history of African Americans and their descendants.

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