“The thing that affects me now is not knowing what happened,” Julius Crawford, 73, of Cambridge, Mass., said of the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of his father, Isaac Crawford. “Everyone was hurt, but there really wasn’t anything we could do.”
Crawford’s comments were made in an interview with Jessica Yamane, a law school student at Northeastern University in Boston, conducted earlier this year in researching the inmate’s death for the school’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project.
Yamane released the interview’s five-page transcript last week in hopes of raising awareness of the civil rights violence of the 1940s and possibly changing Crawford’s medical records to show his true cause of death.
“The fact that Isaac Crawford’s murderer truly never had a fair trial is an injustice that continues to impact his family,” Yamane said in a phone interview with The Augusta Chronicle. “I want more people to know what happened.”
Yamane’s quest for knowledge mostly centers on providing closure for Julius Crawford.
Julius was eight when his father died on June 5, 1948. He has no pictures of his dad and because of a lack of burial records and surviving relatives, no idea where his father’s gravesite is in Augusta’s Southview Cemetery.
All he has left, he said, are the painful memories surrounding his father’s death, which according to the family, resulted in his grandmother being committed to a mental home and Julius moving to Massachusetts in the 1950s to take care of her.
“Sixty five years later and I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Crawford said of his father’s death. “My father was murdered and that’s bad. Somebody should have paid.”
There is plenty of information available about Isaac Crawford’s short life: He was 28, worked at Sibley Mill and was married with two sons and a daughter. Yamane has his obituary, his home address – even his Social Security number.
What’s missing, though, are definitive answers about the death, in which the white warden who severely beat the black inmate was later fined but never charged with murder or homicide.
Crawford, on probation for stealing $31, was later rearrested for being drunk and sentenced to a stockade work crew. He was hospitalized May 22, 1948, with a head wound severe enough to cause blindness and died 16 days later.
Crawford’s official cause of death was listed as acute hepatitis, but – in more than a dozen articles in The Augusta Chronicle and Augusta Herald – allegations arose that his death was caused by a beating with a heavy wood stick or a rubber hose with a wooden handle.
The resulting investigations included a coroner’s jury, which ruled that “Ike Crawford came to his death from natural causes, after having been admitted to University hospital for the treatment of an injury to his eye brought about by causes unknown.”
Yamane said through her research, she discovered Crawford was a craps gambler, a habit that possibly motivated his death. His son said he believes Yamane may be right, but added that in 1948 many details about the death were “swept under the rug.”
“When my father died, people didn’t have money to hire lawyers,” he said. “And if they did have a lawyer, it had to be a black lawyer who couldn’t fully put up a fight because then the judge could put him in jail.”
Yamane said a state prison official’s inquiry shed more light on the case and yielded details of other beatings of both white and black inmates. Ultimately, three guards were charged with multiple counts of assault and battery.
The guard alleged to have beaten Crawford was found guilty of 10 counts, for which he was fined $50 and placed on parole for six months. Black prisoners who had testified about the beatings were transferred to another county for their protection.
Although the case was widely investigated, and attracted enough media attention to prompt a grand jury investigation into treatment of inmates, Yamane said she believes the complete truth was kept quiet and needs to be re-examined.
“I hate to use the cliché, ‘if we do not know and respect our history then we are prone to make the same mistakes,’” she said. “But it is important that people who maybe lived in that area during that era know Crawford’s true fate.”