This weekend, community members, college students, and supporters from near and far gathered in Abbeville, South Carolina, to commemorate and reflect upon the 100th anniversary of a tragic event: the lynching of Anthony P. Crawford.
On Friday, hundreds gathered in Abbeville’s Jefferson Davis Park for a Freedom School, during which students from Kenyon College and Clemson University, activists, and leaders led discussions about our country’s history of racial injustice and its contemporary legacies. Those present included more than 100 of Anthony Crawford’s descendants, who wore black armbands and buttons in his memory, as well as members of the families of Emmett Till, Ida B. Wells, and Malcolm X, who came to lend support and words of encouragement.
The day’s events culminated with a ceremony during which family members collected soil from the site where Mr. Crawford was lynched, and a consecration service in the Abbeville town square led by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference in anticipation of the unveiling of a historical marker commemorating the lynching. The soil collection for Mr. Crawford was part of EJI’s Community Remembrance Project, a campaign to recognize the victims of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites and creating a memorial that acknowledges the horrors of racial injustice in America.
A century ago, a white mob beat, stabbed, shot, and hung Mr. Crawford, a 56-year-old black farmer, in the Abbeville town square, after he dared to argue with a white merchant over the price of cottonseed. The patriarch of a large, multi-generational family, and the owner of 427 acres of land, Mr. Crawford was a successful farmer and leader whose murder had long-reaching effects.
The gruesome public murder, though committed openly, did not lead to prosecution or conviction for any members of the mob. Days after the lynching, Abbeville’s white residents “voted” to expel the Crawford family from the area and seize their property. When South Carolina’s governor declared himself powerless to protect the family from violence, most of the surviving relatives fled to destinations as distant as New York and Illinois, fragmenting the once strong and close-knit family.
It would take ongoing efforts over generations to begin to repair and reconnect those bonds through family reunions and the persistence of family elders who ensured that the younger generations saw Grandpa Crawford’s photograph at family gatherings and knew the story of both his life and death. This weekend, descendants of Anthony Crawford from as far as California, Washington, D.C., Illinois, Texas, and New York – as well as some who remain in Abbeville today – gathered for a powerful commemoration event.
Doria Johnson was born in Chicago, 45 years after her great-great-grandfather’s lynching forced her family to flee north with Doria’s young grandmother wrapped in newspaper to shield her from the cold. Addressing the crowd in Abbeville this weekend, Ms. Johnson recalled how the beautiful photo of Grandpa Crawford and the painful story of his death shaped a curiosity and determination that stayed with her. As a young woman, she called the Abbeville church where Anthony Crawford had been a leader before his death, and found herself speaking to Phillip Crawford, a cousin she’d never known she had. From there, she helped lead more conversations, and research led to advocacy, publicity, and a push for public recognition that has now come to fruition.
On Saturday morning, a large crowd joined together to witness and celebrate the unveiling of a historical marker bearing Mr. Crawford’s photograph and publicly declaring the previously unspoken truth of how his life ended in Abbeville. Alongside a stone monument to South Carolina statesman and avowed white supremacist John C. Calhoun, and within steps of a Confederate memorial bearing an inscription hailing the “right cause” of the Southern forces, the new marker provides a different perspective on that history, telling a story of racial terror, violence, and brutality, and a story of survival.
“For a long time, the Earth has been silent about the injury and injustice of what happened to Anthony Crawford,” said EJI Director Bryan Stevenson, who officiated the unveiling. “But today, we’re going to resurrect that truth.” As the marker was revealed, the crowd chanted, “We are here!”
After the unveiling, Cypress Chapel A.M.E. Church filled to capacity for a fellowship service led by A.M.E. Bishop Samuel Green Sr. and other faith leaders. Members of the Crawford family shared their reflections, and Mr. Stevenson announced the four winners of EJI’s Racial Justice Essay Contest, which awarded $5000 in scholarship awards to Abbeville County high school students Kimberlyn Shelman, Addison Brown, Breanna Brown, and Tyleea Smart. In a moving expression of support for EJI’s Lynching Marker Project, Bishop Green announced a $5000 donation from the A.M.E. church to support the continued effort to mark lynching sites throughout the region.
Near the end of the service, members of the Crawford family escorted to the pulpit Anthony Crawford’s grandson, John Albert Crawford, who had traveled from Atlanta for this long-awaited commemoration. The elderly man slowly walked to the stage and, with determination, made his brief address to the crowd. “This is my church,” Mr. Crawford said. “I spent a lot of days in this church. This is history for us, and this is home.”
EJI is honored to partner with the descendants of Anthony Crawford to sponsor the historical marker and essay contest for high school students in Abbeville as part of our Lynching Marker Project. EJI continues to seek opportunities to work with communities where lynchings occurred to raise public awareness and erect historical markers.