Terror lynching played a key role in the forced migration of millions of Black Americans out of the South. Thousands of people fled to the North and West out of fear of being lynched. Parents and spouses sent away loved ones who found themselves at risk of being lynched for a minor social transgression; they characterized these frantic, desperate escapes as surviving “near-lynchings.”
The Near-Lynching of Fred Croft
Sitting at the dining room table in her home in Anniston, Alabama, Vanessa Croft gently sorts through a trunk of Black and white photographs, handwritten letters sealed in Ziploc bags, and other mementos until she finds a bound book of photographs compiled for a past family reunion.
“As you can see,” she says with a smile, “family is very important to us.”
In many ways, the tale of the tight-knit Croft family’s roots in the nearby city of Gadsden, Alabama, reflects the Black American experience of hardship, survival, and change. Vanessa Croft and her six siblings learned many of those stories from their father, Rev. Thomas C. Croft, or Tommie C., as he was known as a boy. One of the most touching memories about his closest brother, Fred, revolves around the widespread threat of lynching in Alabama and throughout the South in the century following the end of slavery.
One day in the mid-1930s, a group of white men came to the Croft family’s East Gadsden home. Ms. Croft’s father, Tommie C., was ten years old, and his brother Fred was fifteen. One of the white men reported to their father, Thomas Croft Sr., that he believed Fred had pushed his daughter off the back porch and he wanted to see the boy about it.
“And the little girl said, ‘No, no, I told y’all, it was not Fred. All of Tom’s boy are yella niggers.’” Ms. Croft recounts the story told by her father, who passed away last year. “Now, this is how he said they were talking in that day and time to my granddad, who was a grown man. But a twelve-year-old girl would call him Tom and say all of his boys, by complexion, were all yellow. And that it was a Black nigger that pushed her off the porch. It was not Fred, and she was saying that it wasn’t him, but this particular man had it in his head that it was Fred. For whatever reason, he just wanted it to be Fred. But it was not.”
Fred was away from home that afternoon working in town, and the white man eventually left with plans to return. Mr. Croft and young Tommie C. hurried to find Fred. They immediately sent him out of Gadsden to stay with an older brother in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “They sent him away,” Ms. Croft explains, “because they knew that it was not gonna end well.”
Ms. Croft’s aunt, Emma Lee Croft Buford, now nearing 90 years old and the last of her siblings still living, recalls that the fear of racial violence was a way of life for people in Gadsden during that era. In 1906, the same year Fred’s parents Thomas and Minnie Croft had their first child, a Black man named Bunk Richardson was lynched in Gadsden and hung from a bridge over the Coosa River.
Many of the lynchings documented in EJI’s report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, also began with bare, unsupported allegations against a Black person for harming a white person and ended with the accused’s brutal and blatant murder by a white mob that faced no punishment. Several decades after the end of slavery, the discrimination, violence, and terrorism facing Black people living in the South led tens of thousands to flee to the North and West. Lynching played a central role in creating an atmosphere of terror that spurred parents and others to endure separation from their loved ones in order to protect them.
It would take nearly ten years and the outbreak of World War II to reunite the Croft brothers. Nineteen-year-old Tommie C. was a Seaman First Class in the Navy, stationed at Pearl Harbor and tasked with laying concrete. One afternoon, he heard a familiar voice calling his name and turned to see his brother Fred (pictured above), now in his mid-twenties and a Steward First Class assigned to the USS Loeser, a destroyer escort ship that was temporarily docked at Pearl Harbor.
“He thought he was seeing something, but he knew when the man said ‘Tommie’ that it was his brother.” Ms. Croft remembers the joy and surprise in her father’s face when he told her the story decades later. “And of course they had a reunion at Pearl Harbor and who knows what they got into back then? Because he didn’t tell me details. I was like, ‘Well, Daddy, what did y’all do?’ And he just shook his head, ‘Whew, I’m tellin’ you man, we had a good time.’”
Fred Croft settled in New York City after the war, where he married, raised three sons, and worked in the hotel business. He remained close to his brother and other siblings but did not return to Alabama until years later as an older man. He died in 1977.
The trauma of lynching reached far beyond the 4000 Black men, women, and children lynched in twelve Southern states between 1877 and 1945. The entire Black community was harmed by the constant risk of violence and death, the fear that they or their loved ones would be victimized, and the years of separation created when the threat of lynching forced friends and family members to flee home and remain away for years at a time. Stories like the near-lynching of young Fred Croft are hard to quantify and measure, but they represent important parts of our national history that have a wide and continuing impact.
The tenth of eleven children, and the youngest of eight boys, Ms. Croft’s father, Thomas Croft, was the only son who did not leave Alabama for Detroit or New York. He and his wife, Mrs. Margaret Ingram Croft, raised a new generation in Gadsden, where Vanessa Croft and her six siblings witnessed civil rights struggles, racial conflict, and community unrest following the 1973 Ku Klux Klan murder of Black minister Rev. Edward Pace and the 1978 fatal police shooting of a young Black man named Collis Madden. Their mother provided them an up-close view of activism when she filed a landmark civil rights case against her employer, Mid South Electric, in the early 1980s. She passed away on May 1, 2015, at age 84.
Vanessa Crofts’ parents’ emphasis on sharing and interpreting the past helped her to make sense of the world around her. “Continuing that legacy is very important,” Ms. Croft explains, holding the family memory book open to a picture of her father as a young seaman. “Most of our stories have been oral until this generation, where we started saying that we need to write down these things and keep record of the pictures and all this kind of stuff. You have to know where you’re from, I think, in order to move forward in a positive way. And to make progress from the mistakes of the past. I would say that is one of the main reasons why they passed those stories on for the generations to come.”