MRS Jessie Johnson Crawford Shares Some Personal History About Education in Alabama
As told to Maria Gitin March 26, 2010
Born and raised in Wilcox County Alabama one of my favorite people on earth is Mrs. Jessie Crawford, mother of Joy Washington, Debbie Porter, and Jessietta Thomas, wife of Bob Crawford Jr and daughter in law of Bob and Georgia Crawford Senior.
JC: You know, Mr. William James Edwards, he changed my whole life. Because of that Snow Hill school he built, I turned in a completely different direction than I might otherwise have. I went to that school from sixth-twelfth grade. Yes, it was a public school by then, but that I got to go there made a difference. Here’s how it was.
When I was little, we lived way up in Ackerville, about 15 miles NE of Selma. There were no school busses for black children so I couldn’t go to a regular elementary school which was too more than 20 miles away.We had a little school that was held at the Sanctified Church, they call it Holiness now, but back then it was Sanctified. It was about six miles I guess. My daddy would ride me over on his mule as far as the Big Branch swamp, then I’d cross and he’d watch me get across alright. In the afternoon, he’d come back and wait for me to crossagain and then carry me home. Every day.
Traffic was too bad on Highway 21 East because it was under construction. I would have had to go 8 miles around to go to the Snow Hill elementary so that’s why I went to Sanctified Elementary up until the 6thgrade. We lived about 20 miles from Snow Hill and like I said, there were no busses for black children, they would just drive right past us walking along.
We lived on some white people’s place, the Wallaces. They were very nice to us. We just gave them some of our corn and chickens and vegetables. They didn’t pressure us. It was alright.
But, if not for Snow Hill, my education could have ended right therein sixth grade. Likely I would have stayed in Ackerville, got married,had children young.
My father’s brother, my Uncle bought some acreage on a hill. It had good drainage. He already had some land so he offered it to my father and we moved, and built a little house. It was just six miles to Snow Hill so I was able to complete my education there. We moved just in time for me to go to high school.
They had purchased their own school bus, “The Blue Goose” we called it, and they used a student driver but (at least) we had our own bus. Mr Wilson was the principal the year I entered, that would have been —– I graduated in 1953 age 18 and went on to college, became a teacher. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to go to that high school, that never would have happened.
MG: How old were you in the summer of 1965? We met little Debbie and Bob Jr but not you or Joy.
JS: I would have been 31 that year. I had been working, teaching in Barbour County earlier. Back then, in 1961 they fired me because I became pregnant. But something good happened in Barbour, too.
They came and asked black (teachers or everyone?) to register to vote, the local white people, not civil rights workers. That knocked me off my feet! Because in Wilcox where I was born and Monroe where I moved with Bob, we couldn’t vote until long long after that.
Where was I that summer? I had been working for the Demopolis School system but they fired me because I got pregnant with Joy. She was born August 21, 196—(year committed or Joy’s privacy) so I was home with her when he went over to Wilcox to see his parents. I went back to teaching and got fired again in 1970 when I had Jessietta.
For more about the Crawford family: “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com
For more about JW Edwards and Snow Hill “Fallen Prince by Donald P Stone”: https://www.amazon.com/Fallen-Prince-Education-Afro-American-Nationality/dp/0962153
Rosetta Anderson is one of my sheroes. We first met at the Wilcox County Pink & Black Gala in November 2008. She introduced herself as one of the adults who was active in the local civil rights movement. We began a correspondence, and telephone friendship over seven years of deep conversation.
Although I was only able to include some of her story in This Bright Light of Ours, she faithfully appeared at every presentation and book talk I gave in Alabama.
Mrs. Anderson worked with Rev. TL Threadgill early on. She and Lawrence Parrish, Dan Harrell and others began getting people up to the courthouse to try to register. “My daughter Lena Jo was one of the student leaders at Camden Academy I was one of the adult community organizers. I was about twenty-seven at the time. I was a designated driver and organized others to drive the risky roads. We had threatening calls to our home regularly. Our sons had to watch over our house. I had to leave them there alone. I guess I didn’t realize how dangerous it was, but I know I didn’t fear it or let myself fear for them. I could see the hatred in people’s faces when we went up to the courthouse, but I couldn’t dwell on it.”
Rosetta Anderson stated hopefully, “We are trying to come together, all nationalities to build our community. It seems we are more divided now than ever. I regret it very much, but I don’t think in my lifetime that I will see as much unity as we had back then. The economy now could bring a lot of us back to where we were. Out of the blue somebody could stand up tomorrow and take up where we left off, declare a new war on poverty. “
Read more about Mrs. Rosetta Marsh Anderson: This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight. Maria Gitin, University of Alabama Press
New Release from the 6th Floor Museum, Dallas TX “Voices from the Civil Rights Movement” miniseries.
Thank you Curator Stephen Fagin for surprising me by having read “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” and for great questions. More about the book: www.thisbrightlightofours.com
All photos by John Worcester, civil rights volunteer and seminarian who worked with SCLC SCOPE project. Please add your comments using the comment feature. They will be moderated. Thank you!
Due to the efforts of SCLC and other civil rights organizations, Wilcox County Al was one of the first counties to receive federal funding to set up Head Start. Summer volunteers worked with local teachers and students to launch the program and to celebrate with a picnic at Bessie Munden Park.
Notes and Resources from SNCC 60th Anniversary Conference Session ((will update with link to full program at SNCC Legacy website when available in February). This session focussed on the importance of Black landownership and production of food as vital to liberation and caring for one another.
Savi Horne, Executive Director at Land Loss Prevention Project
Leah Penniman, Black Kreyol Farmer, Author, and Food Justice Activist
Shirley Sherrod, Co-Founder, Southwest Georgia Project and New Communities Inc.
Malik Yakini, Executive Director, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
Federal Aid: To compensate for historic prejudicial lending practices that disadvantaged Black farmers, the U.S. government approved $4 billion in debt relief for farmers of color in March 2021. However, the money is tied up in lawsuits filed by white farmers who claim the program is unfair.
ACTION: Follow this case online and write your Senator and the Department of Agriculture to insist on implementation.
Training for Black famers including heirs and new farmers:
- Learn how to farm, what to farm and why farms are important to Black community and beyond
- Learn how to acquire you own land, not just work land that belongs to others including legal re-partition of land (heirs property). Consider collective ownership, community land trusts.
- Learn sustainability, planning and strategy skills. You may have to shift your idea of what to do with the land, which crops or animals to raise. Find your niche. Accept the reality that small farms are very seldom sufficient for all family income. May need to work other jobs for income. Examples: landscaping paving, snow-plowing, repair business and other businesses needed in rural areas. Also bookkeeping, tax preparation and other professions where you can manage your own time.
ACTION: Learn About The Federation of Southern Cooperatives / Land Assistance Fund
https://www.federation.coop which works to develop cooperatives and credit unions and to save, protect and expand the landholdings of Black family farmers in the South;
Learn more about the history of loans for and restoration of Black farmland
Details history. Our speakers cautioned against working with private attorneys. Work with nonprofit and state/federal resources to recover land and learn about your rights under Pigford V Glickman.
When I turned in my final draft to University of Alabama Press my editor informed me that I needed to cut thousands of words and one entire chapter. I saved some of the most interesting deletions and want to share a few of those of Wilcox County stories from the Voting Rights Fight.
Getting electricity, sewer and water run to rural homes was the biggest change for the African American community due to gaining voting rights. Into the late 1970’s, most Black family outside the town of Camden had to haul water from pumps, heat it on wood burning stoves, and use outhouses. One of our main arguments for voter registration was that people could get county water service. Running water and functioning sewer systems were public utilities taken for granted by most people in the United Sates for more than fifty years, but they were out of reach for African Americans in many parts of the deep South. Until the got the vote.
On January 15, 2012, Highway 41 from the junction of Highway 80 and Highway 41 in Dallas County to the Monroe County line was designated “The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Highway” by AL State Senate Bill SJR31. A piece of this highway runs in front of historical Antioch Baptist Church where a plaque has been installed to commemorate the naming.
Ms. Kate Charley on Bessie W Munden Playground:
“Mrs Bessie Munden was the supervisor of Black teachers, when we were all segregated. Well, we still are all segregated, but anyway, it was named for her. In the 1950’s she told Black teachers that they all needed to pay $20 a year for the park. She collected it and bought the land, built that playground. You remember, it was a source of great pride to the Black community. It fell into disrepair for a while, but some of us retired teachers have reclaimed it. We have a little board of directs and raised some money. We got some grants, raised $87,000, and built a pavilion and three ball fields. “ W. Kate Charley 2008.
Mrs Rosetta Angion on what changed:
“There has been a BIG change since black people became citizens, able to vote, have a voice altogether like it should be. Before we had the vote, we were not realy citizens. Now, I am able to go to the polls. Those that are able to work can get a job. We are able to go in the courthouse and use the restrooms. I feel a lot safer. I know that black people have rights just like white people, not everything belongs to them
We were just about coming out from under the hard slavery. I don’t think either my grandparents or parents were in slavery but my great grandparents were. What really needs to happen, people need to come together, woik together and don’t be fighting against the other (within the black community). Most of the ones that really benefitted and got the good jobs didn’t march and all that. I’m one of the few left that was there, remembers it all. They should learn about our history. Keep working, it’s not over with. Keep tryin’ to help each other. Thank you,thank you kindly. ” Read morehttps://www.thisbrightlightofours.com
“This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” video presentation and live discussion with Author and Civil Rights Veteran Maria Gitin and Joy Crawford-Washington
Date & Time: January 18th 2-3:30 PM (PDT) online
Add to your Martin Luther King Jr. Day Observance by listening to personal stories from courageous Wilcox County, Alabama freedom fighters who I met and worked with when I spent a brief summer in support of this courageous community. The pre-recorded (edited) 40 minute film will be followed by live Q & A with Maria Gitin and Joy Crawford-Washington, granddaughter of Civil Rights leaders from Pine Apple, Wilcox County AL who housed my friends that summer, at risk to their own lives. As time permits we will respond to questions and comments about historic and current voting rights and racial equity issues. Please join us.
This Temple Beth El Aptos Senior Connections Event is free and open to all. Log on any time after 1:46 PDT
June 28, 1965 – Camden
Eighteen (18) SCOPE-SCLC and local civil rights workers are arrested at Antioch Baptist Church and booked into the Camden jail without due process. Local student activist Don Green is beaten in front of us and thrown into the bull pen (solitary confinement) when a knife is discovered in his sock. White summer volunteer 18 yr old Mike Farley is put in a cell with a violent white prisoner who beats him mercilessly throughout the night while we girls scream and bang on the bars. Over the next few days we are released one at a time. All are released within five days but we never know when they will be either released or attacked. Leaders Albert Gordon and Major Johns were arrested along with six white civil rights workers and the following Black youth: Don Green, Lester Core, John Davis, Roosevelt Washington, Johnny Jackson, Calister Wright, George Shamburger, Elmo Jones, Harris Knight, Ashley Stallworth. White kids included: myself (Maria Gitin/Joyce Brians), Connie Turner, Judy Harmon, Shari Thurber, Mike Farley and one other white student civil rights worker.
Source: Author was eyewitness-participant, saved a letter from that date, and field report from John Worcester to SCLC. More detail: www.thisbrightlightofours.com