071887

— Johnston

June 2, 1887

Blocton, Bibb County, Alabama

On June 2, 1887, an African American man recorded only as “Johnston” was lynched near Blocton Mines in Blocton, Bibb County, Alabama. Allegedly, he attempted to rape Mrs. Crawford, a white woman, when she was alone in her home on that day. When she cried out for help and tried to fight him off, some white men within earshot rushed to the house and quickly subdued Johnston. Crawford identified Johnston as her assailant, pointing to his clothes which she had claimed to tear during the struggle. Soon a mob numbering 100 white men dragged him into the woods nearby and hanged him from a tree. One account states that he was shot after being hanged. No one buried or claimed his body.[1]

A photograph of a wooded area with a gravel trail in the middle.
Johnston was lynched within a mile of this area.

Blocton was still new in 1887, created around the Cahaba coal fields in 1883, so there is not much historical information about the town or its residents in this time period, but it seems that a spirit of racial terror infected the area.[2] Less than a year earlier, on November 23, 1886, an African American man named John Davis was lynched in Randolph, another town in Bibb County, for the alleged rape of a white woman.[3] Additionally Birmingham, only a few miles away, buzzed with rumors of race riots sparked by Johnston’s supposed crime. But local newspapers downplayed the idea of a riot and instead stressed that the lynching was deserved and well-accepted by whites.[4] Overall, Johnston’s lynching appears to be not surprising for Blocton and the surrounding mining area, and fits into a history of racial violence.

Much still remains unknown about Johnston and those who lynched him. His identity is still unclear, as most newspaper articles surrounding the case did not mention his name and specifically said that his attackers did not ask his name, such as the one from the Atlanta Constitution, “Did Not Ask His Name–But Quickly Strung Him up to a Tree Limb.[5] By not asking his name, the mob further dehumanized him and ensured that others could not find record of his death. For this reason, his identity in other publications surrounding lynchings in the United States was listed as “Unknown.” However, an article from the Bibb Blade said that he was locally known as Johnston. In addition to listing his last name, this article has an interesting tidbit of information–that Mrs. Crawford had known him “for a long time.”[6] This knowledge, in combination with the fact that her husband was not at home, raises the question of a possible consensual affair. Perhaps Johnston and Mrs. Crawford were in an intimate relationship and were caught on June 2, 1887, which led to the accusation of outrage and his lynching as interracial relationships were strictly forbidden at the time. Unfortunately, with the lack of a first name and a lack of census data for Blocton until the year 1900, Johnston’s career and age remain unknown. It is possible that he worked in the mines or agriculture as did most male residents, but that remains speculation. There are, however, quite a few black Johnstons in Bibb County beginning in the 1900 census and continuing in subsequent editions, any of whom could be a relative, but nothing is certain.[7]Much of Johnston’s story remains unknown, but in knowing his name and more facts surrounding his relationship to Mrs. Crawford, we can begin to learn more about his life.

Picture of an article entitled "Did Not Ask His Name: But Swung Him Up Quickly to a Tree Limb"
An example of one of the many articles that fails to include Johnson’s name.

I began my research with no name, simply looking for the lynching of an unknown black man in Blocton, Alabama, on June 2, 1887. First, I sought out newspaper articles surrounding the case, trying to find as many as possible; however, I spent hours upon hours searching for articles only to find around ten. None were exactly helpful, but I finally found one article that gave me so much more than had been previously known. “The Daring Fiend Defiles Purity by His Polluted Touch and Pays the Penalty at the Muzzle of Angry Guns” from the Bibb Blade was written on June 9, 1887, and provided a name for him, Johnston, which was presumably his last name. It also gave me the knowledge that Mrs. Crawford and Johnston had known each other, which opened up more possibilities in the story. Using this information, I looked on different genealogical websites and at cemetery records to search for Crawfords and Johnstons. I am fairly certain that I found the husband of Mrs. Crawford, Andrew Hampton Crawford, and that she died before 1900 after having at least one child.[8] I also discovered many Johnstons in Bibb County who could have been relatives of the victim, as I mentioned earlier. More than anything else, I wish I could have found his first name, but given that Blocton did not exist until 1883 and he died in 1887, he would not have lived in the town during a census year. Additionally, I would like to know his age and occupation in order to know more about his life outside of his violent death. But without a first name, this information is impossible to find, and searching for his birth and death records without a first name or age is impossible given how common the last name Johnston was. It breaks my heart that the most information we have on his life is from newspapers that celebrate the racial violence against him and mock his death. Most of this research was accomplished through reading between the lines, but I long for the day where the stories of victims of lynching and racial terror are told not through the lens of the perpetrators, but from the viewpoint of the victims and their loved ones.

It appears that this lynching was an isolated event in the town of Blocton, at least as far as we know. However, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, there were at least 11 other lynchings in Bibb County, which reveals a culture of racial violence and terror both before and after the murder of Johnston. But if you try to find any information on racism or responses to the civil rights movement in Blocton, you will not succeed. Most sources on the forgotten town tend to focus on the mining industry, Italian Catholic and Jewish immigration to the area in the 1880s and 1890s, and the town’s merging with its sister city, West Blocton, which encompasses the area today.[9] Largely, this lynching has been forgotten, just like the town of Blocton, but Johnston’s story shows a different side to the area and a different side to racial terror. It demonstrates how common racial terror was and how lynchings functioned as a tool not just to hurt people of color, but also to ensure that they are forgotten. In addition, a lack of information about African Americans in newspapers and genealogical records from the time leads to not knowing much about the lives of many lynching victims, including Johnston. However, through knowing his name and more about his relationship with Mrs. Crawford, Johnston is no longer “Unknown.” In uncovering the story of Johnston, his life and the terror he and many others faced due to lynching, will no longer be forgotten. I hope the day comes where others can use what little information I have uncovered about Johnston to be able to find more about his life and not just his death in order to truly give him justice and a memory outside of the violence he was victim to.

[1] “Did Not Ask His Name: But Swung Him Up Quickly To A Tree Limb,” The Atlanta Constitution, June 3, 1887; “Birmingham: A Fiendish Negro’s Prompt Punishment.” The Daily Picayune, June 4, 1887; “A Negro, Having Attempted to Outrage a White Woman, is Captured and Lynched.” The Memphis Appeal, June 4, 1887; “Special to the Times-Democrat.” The Times-Democrat, June 4, 1887; “Swift Justice: A Negro Assaults a White Woman and Finds Himself Hanging to a Limb a Few Hours After.” The Courier-Journal, June 4, 1887; “From the Wires.” Eufaula Daily Times, June 5, 1887; “State News.” Blount County News, June 6, 1887; “Alabama News and Editorials–Gleanings, Clippings, and Sayings–Boiled Down and Skimmed for the Busy Reader.” The Moulton Advertiser, June 9, 1887; “The Daring Fiend Defiles Purity by His Polluted Touch and Pays the Penalty at the Muzzle of Angry Guns,” The Bibb Blade, June 9, 1887; “From the Wires.” Times and News, June 9, 1887; “Riot Rumors in the Air–A Report That the Military Were to Sleep on Their Guns.” The Weekly Advertiser, June 9, 1887; The Moulton Advertiser. June 23, 1887.

[2]Donna R. Causey, “Blocton/West Blocton, Alabama–Sister Towns that Grew out of the Industrial Revolution,” AlabamaPioneers.com, accessed November 26, 2019, https://www.alabamapioneers.com/bloctonwest-blocton-alabama-sister-towns-that-grew-out-of-the-industrial-revolution/#targetText=Blocton%20is%20a%20town%20in,by%20Truman%20Aldrich%20around%201883.

[3] R.J. Ramey, ed., Monroe Work Today Dataset Compilation, V1 (October 23, 2017), distributed by the Tuskegee University Archives.

[4] “Riot Rumors in the Air–A Report That the Military Were to Sleep on Their Guns.”

[5] “Did Not Ask His Name: But Swung Him Up Quickly To A Tree Limb.”

[6] “The Daring Fiend Defiles Purity by His Polluted Touch and Pays the Penalty at the Muzzle of Angry Guns.”

[7] U.S. Federal Census, Year: 1900; Census Place: Blocton, Bibb, Alabama; Page: 6; Enumeration District: 0010; FHL microfilm: 1240002; U.S. Federal Census, Year: 1920; Census Place: Six Mile, Bibb, Alabama; Roll: T625_1; Page: 13A; Enumeration District: 9.

[8] U.S. Federal Census, Year: 1900; Census Place: Blocton, Bibb, Alabama; Page: 6; Enumeration District: 0010; FHL microfilm: 1240002.

[9] Donna R. Causey, “Blocton/West Blocton, Alabama–Sister Towns that Grew out of the Industrial Revolution.”