In this small South Carolina town near the Georgia line, where some say the Confederacy was born and died, descendants of a man lynched 100 years ago are erecting a downtown memorial to him and other black men killed by white mobs after the Civil War.
Abbeville City Council authorized the marker that will be unveiled Saturday, 100 years and one day after Anthony Crawford was beaten, dragged out of town with a noose around his neck and hanged from a tree where his body was riddled with bullets.
It’s the latest public acknowledgement of South Carolina’s racist past.
In recent years, officials have apologized to civil rights protesters who were arrested in the 1960s, and a judge ruled that a 14-year-old black boy was wrongly executed in 1944.
Most prominently, following the 2015 massacre of nine blacks in a Charleston church, the Confederate flag was removed from the statehouse where it had flown for more than 50 years.
“Most of life is generational. Thoughts, attitudes and actions change,” said interim Abbeville City Manager David Krumwiede, who serves a town of 5,200 people where about half are white and half are black.
Crawford’s marker will sit in front of Abbeville’s Opera House in the town’s brick-lined central square. A quarter-mile from there, visitors can find Secession Hill, where locals in November 1860 passed the first resolution calling for South Carolina to leave the U.S. A quarter-mile another way is the Burt-Stark Mansion, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis, fleeing Union troops, met for the last time with his war council in May 1865 and declared all was lost.
“You have all of this Confederate memorabilia, but nothing that talked to the black experience. So we wanted to do something big and bold and outdoors,” said Doria Johnson, Crawford’s great-great-granddaughter.
Crawford’s marker recounts his life and also gives an overview of racial violence in South Carolina. It names seven other men lynched in Abbeville County from 1877 to 1950 and says “lynching – or murder at the hand of a mob – became a tool for re-establishing white supremacy and terrorizing the black community.”
That harsh assessment doesn’t sit well with some in today’s Abbeville. A recent City Council meeting drew some speakers who grumbled about grammatical errors in the text on the marker and how local historians weren’t consulted on its message – although they pointed out they support some kind of commemoration of the events 100 years ago.
The marker and stories from the Abbeville Press and Banner recount what befell Crawford, called “a negro of wealth” in the newspaper’s headline after he was lynched on Oct. 21, 1916. The 56-year-old farmer, who owned more than 400 acres, got in an argument with a store owner as he tried to sell his cotton seed. A mob began seeking Crawford after he was accused of cursing at the white store owner.
The crowd cornered Crawford in the boiler room of a nearby cotton gin. Crawford struck one of his attackers with a hammer, then was beaten severely before the sheriff could save him and take him to the Abbeville County jail for his own safety. But the mob of up to 400 people soon overwhelmed the sheriff and his deputies and lynched Crawford.
No one was ever tried for the lynching – a frequent outcome when witnesses refused to testify about mob violence for fear of their own safety and livelihood.
Locals ordered Crawford’s wife, 13 children and other relatives to leave the county and they eventually lost all their land. A few family members stayed behind, but many ended up in cities in Illinois or in Philadelphia, Johnson said.
Crawford had built a school on his land for his family and neighbors because he thought education was the surest path to success, his family said. Part of his prosperity came when he diversified from raising only cotton, years before other farmers were ruined by the cotton-destroying boll weevil.
It took years, but the family finally determined where Crawford died and planned to scoop up soil from the site. They still haven’t been able to determine where he was buried.
The family tries to get together every year to swap stories and remember Anthony Crawford’s courage, Johnson said.
Phillip Crawford, a great-great-grandson of Anthony Crawford, is descended from the handful of Crawfords who never left Abbeville County. He has acted as a go-between for Crawford’s family, which wants this to be a thoughtful affair, and town officials trying to make sure the two days of commemoration about Crawford’s lynching don’t lead to violence.
“He was a peaceful, humble, good man,” Phillip Crawford said. “I don’t think there is going to be any trouble.”
The family got permission from the Abbeville City Council to put up a monument in 2002, but couldn’t raise the money. In 2015, Johnson got in touch with the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which says its mission is to fight racial and economic injustice in the U.S. The group agreed to pay for the marker.
Robert Hayes, who once sold Confederate memorabilia within shouting distance of the marker, wishes it told what he considers the whole story. Hayes ran the Southern Patriot Shop, where shoppers could find Rebel flags and bumper stickers that said, “If at first you don’t secede, try again.”
“I submit there were a lot more blacks killing blacks, and possibly blacks killing whites,” Hayes said.
But for Crawford’s family, that misses the point. Their ancestor was a proud man who cowered to no one. He is said to have declared that he knew the day a white man hit him would be the day he died.
“He was a strong black man who through hard work was becoming quite rich and I think that bothered a lot of people,” Johnson said. “He was killed because he was too successful. That is unconscionable in America.”