Prosperity Made Blacks a Target for Land Grabs


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.

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 granddaughter were killed in Birmingham that night. Property records show that the lot 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 (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 $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 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.

Sometimes, individual black farmers were 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, 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, the Brookhaven Leader newspaper reported at the time. Hilson ignored the warning.

A month later, the 39-year-old farmer was shot dead 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 rear their 11 children and work the 74-acre farm, but she could not manage without her husband. She lost the property through a mortgage foreclosure in 1905. Land records show the farm went for $439 to S.P. Oliver, a county supervisor. 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 said her husband later told her why: They had overheard the sheriff, now dead, talking about where to hide their bodies.

Fields said Stephens and his brother quickly 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.


NEXT WEEK: A legal maneuver is used to strip black Americans of their land.

This is Part Two of “Torn From the Land,” a three-part weekly series documenting how black Americans lost family land over the last 160 years. A Web presentation of this series, including documents, longer versions of the stories and additional reports, can be found at the AP’s “The Wire” Web site: