The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the pandemic has stolen from Black America

Howard Croft was part of a generation who challenged segregation, then died of covid-19 decades later.

Cynthia Kain and Gunnar Eggertsson sort through the personal effects of Howard Croft at the home he and Kain shared in Anacostia. (Robb Hill/For The Washington Post)
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The boy is perhaps 8 or 9 years old. In the black-and-white photo, his face is frozen in an open-mouthed grin, his small arms tucked respectfully behind his back. He stands alone, a Black child in dark slacks and a light, collared shirt. Pine trees rise in the blurry background, dark slashes against an overexposed sky.

The second boy, who holds the photograph, does not resemble the first. He is 13, tall and fair-skinned, with dirty-blond hair. His brown eyes strain at the image with the hope of recognition.

“I think this is my grandpa,” Gunnar Eggertsson says. “I’m not sure, though.”

So much here is unknown. Gunnar is at the Southeast Washington home that his grandfather, longtime civil rights activist Howard Croft, inhabited for nearly 40 years before being killed by the worst pandemic in a century. Gunnar and his grandmother, Cynthia Kain, have set out to sift through and preserve Croft’s personal records, many undisturbed since his death last summer.

Howard Croft, longtime D.C. activist and social justice crusader, dies of covid-19

It isn’t the first time they have tried.

Earlier in the spring, as covid-19 was still killing more than a thousand people in the United States every day, Gunnar and Kain made a tentative pilgrimage to this tan clapboard house in Anacostia. Their grief was still fresh, and the pain of excavating the past was too great. In the March light bathing the quiet living room, they opened boxes containing photos of a grandfather and husband in his wedding tux, or grinning as a young man amid the breakers on an unknown beach — and closed them again.

On this Friday afternoon, the last day in April, they have returned at Gunnar’s urging. His middle name is Howard. He loved his grandfather and vaguely understood the significance of the man’s life. But Gunnar has grown up in New York and Providence, R.I., the oldest child of a biracial energy markets analyst — Howard’s daughter, Helima Croft — and a White economics professor from Iceland. His grandfather’s world, rooted in Black D.C., is as foreign to him in some ways as the one occupied by his relatives in Reykjavik.

Croft told his grandson stories about when he risked his life to register Black voters in Mississippi in the early 1960s. He took him to the African American Civil War Museum and pointed out the name of Gunnar’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Alexander Baker, who fought for the Union in a Black regiment.

But during much of their time together, Croft was a doting grandparent, not a history professor. He sometimes talked about the past, but more often he hungered for news of Gunnar’s life and interests, his latest Dungeons & Dragons character or his classes at the elite Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City.

Now, like nearly 600,000 others this past year, Croft is gone. He was 78, a member of the generation the virus stalked most mercilessly. He was Black, as were three-quarters of the 1,136 people the pandemic has killed in the nation’s capital. And he was, as Gunnar is beginning to understand, a conduit to a past that those left behind barely fathom.

Hundreds of thousands of families across the country lost their elders to the pandemic, and with every one there vanished a piece of history. But the piece of history that vanished with Croft was especially remarkable. He belonged to the generation of Black activists who challenged segregation alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., joining Freedom Rides and confronting the Klan, marching in Selma, Ala., and in Washington. They lived for their ideals, and sometimes died for them.

He risked his life photographing the 1961 Freedom Riders. Theodore Gaffney just died from the coronavirus at 92.

Half a century after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, civil rights activists reflect on what they achieved and what still needs to be done. (Video: Reuters)

The details of that history — specifically, his grandfather’s role in it — are what Gunnar wants to discover and understand. But the clues spread out on the dining table at Croft’s house confuse as much as they enlighten. There is a postcard from the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence that Croft wrote but never sent to the grandmother who raised him. Old dental bills. Buttons from his unsuccessful campaign for the D.C. Council. A sample ballot from the first free election held in South Africa.

Gunnar is young enough to say what his grandmother will not: “It would be easier if we had grandpa here to figure it out.”

In a thick, brilliantly illustrated family Bible acquired in 1918 — as the world was suffering through its last great pandemic — there is a curling lock of dark hair tucked into the first book of Chronicles. There is also an undated clipping of a newspaper obituary for a man named Daniel H. Potter.

“‘Former slave, dead, aged 83,’” Gunnar reads aloud. “Wow. Grandma, look at this.”

Kain, Croft’s third wife, studies the article held by her grandson.

“I wonder why he saved that,” she says.

A surviving uncle, Charles Croft, is 92 and a keeper of family lore. He will probably know, she tells Gunnar. She suggests the obituary be placed in a plastic bag for further research along with other mysterious items.

Kain, 56, is wary of what lies before them this weekend. She knows what these mementos can do, sending a sudden tidal wave of grief from the past’s becalmed depths. She has armed herself with scrapbooks and sticker dots, plans and categories, the makings of a tenuous breakwater.

“We need to come up with some system,” she says. “We have no system right now. We’ve just got a lot of random stuff.”

Dark clouds are visible through windows protected with bars, and outside a strong wind is whipping across the overgrown lawn. Gunnar holds the newspaper clipping gingerly.

“I think we should keep it in the Bible,” he says.

“You do? Why?”

“I don’t know.”

The leather-bound Bible closes over the dark lock of hair and the record of the formerly enslaved man’s death.

‘That man saved my life’

Howard Croft was ready to die.

Not in 2020, as a frightening infection began to spread from China across the globe, but in 1964. That was the year Croft, a 22-year-old who had just become the first member of his family to earn a college degree, arrived in Mississippi to help register Black voters.

It was a heady time in the civil rights movement, with droves of activists descending on the state. By day, they worked on voter registration drives, and by night, they passed around worn copies of books by Franz Kafka and Richard Wright.

It was also a dangerous time. A year earlier, Medgar Evers, a state NAACP leader, had been gunned down in his driveway in Jackson, Miss., by a white supremacist. From the green bottomlands west of Jackson, where Croft worked, it was less than a two hours’ drive to Neshoba County, Miss., where three civil rights workers were kidnapped and murdered the same summer he arrived.

Croft didn’t talk much with his family about his work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Freedom Summer.

“I was just a foot soldier,” he told his daughter. When Helima praised his bravery, he said the young could afford to be brave.

But he carried an unexplained burn scar on his forearm, and Helima has long suspected that he was abused during one of his periods in jail for civil rights organizing. Once when Helima was home from college, she and her father had met an unfamiliar friend of his on the street. The friend’s son, who was also present, praised her looks.

“I know you don’t think that’s appropriate,” Croft said to his feminist daughter as they walked away. “But you should know, that man saved my life in jail in Mississippi.”

“Anybody who was in Mississippi in the civil rights movement in the 1960s thought about dying. If you didn’t, something was wrong with you,” said Frank Smith, who worked alongside Croft in Mississippi to launch the first federally sanctioned Head Start program.

But the dread was interspersed with moments of hope. Smith remembers being imprisoned with Croft for 18 days in a livestock auction yard following a protest in Jackson. He also remembers the hours they spent teaching freedom songs to Black children under Delta shade trees.

“Howard was a part of something special,” said Smith, who would go on to serve on the D.C. Council and establish the African American Civil War Museum. “It was a special time for us, for African Americans. It was a special time for America.”

After his work in Mississippi, Croft obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. Then he came to Washington in the late 1960s as the city was witnessing its own special moment.

The devastation of the 1968 riots was followed by the promise of the 1973 Home Rule Act, and when Croft bought his house in Anacostia in 1980, the District was seeing its political identity coalesce under the leadership of another SNCC alumnus: Marion Barry.

Croft became one of Barry’s chief supporters and campaign organizers. He taught at the University of the District of Columbia and established classes for prisoners at the old Lorton penitentiary. He served on the parole board, was active in the labor movement and ceaselessly advanced the cause of D.C. statehood.

Croft’s interests ranged far beyond activism. Born to a teen mother and raised by working-class grandparents in Harrisburg, Pa., he traveled the world as an adult. He took up boating and cooked elaborate dinners for friends. (The kitchen of his Anacostia home is equipped with two ovens.) He liked to say that if you were curious about something, you should read at least three books about it.

Maurice Jackson served with Croft as a delegate at a D.C. statehood convention in 1982. Jackson, now a Georgetown University professor, was teaching in Qatar last summer when he heard the news that the “small guy with a big voice,” as he remembered his old friend, had died of covid-19.

Jackson, who is writing a book on the history of African Americans in D.C., was acutely aware of the slow diminution of the District’s Black cultural legacy amid gentrification. He and Croft often talked about the demise of Chocolate City, as D.C. was once widely known, and about the unfulfilled ideals of their youth.

She’d lived on this historically Black D.C. block for 40 years. Now she was being pushed out.

Now he tried to think of someone from their generation with whom he could commiserate over Croft’s loss. But even before the pandemic, few of them were still alive.

“I thought, ‘My God,' " Jackson recalled, " 'who am I going to talk to about this?’ ”

‘He wanted more’

“You remind me so much of him.”

It’s the day after Gunnar and Kain’s arrival in Anacostia, a bright Saturday. Rather than spend it puzzling over the artifacts of the dead, they have chosen to spend it with the living, visiting relatives near Union Station. But after a leisurely lunch on the patio of a Laotian restaurant, the talk turns to the person who isn’t there.

Lindsay Dunn, a D.C. attorney who is married to Croft’s nephew, studies Gunnar’s face. The boy’s guileless questions about her work and upbringing in Indiana echo those Croft used to ask her at their regular Sunday dinners.

“The fact that we weren’t ever able to properly bury him — ” Dunn shakes her head. “I’m never going to get over the way this happened.”

“We thought he was at least going to see me graduate from high school,” Gunnar says.

Kain, eyes downcast, shifts in her seat and pokes with a fork at the shrimp left on her plate.

A quiet moment passes, and Gunnar asks a question: “He lived a full life, right?”

Dunn smiles. “He lived, like, 10 full lives,” she says.

Kain finally speaks up. “But he wanted more.”

It has been 11 months since Croft spiked a fever after a routine visit to Sibley Memorial Hospital, where he was undergoing chemotherapy for multiple myeloma. The cancer was responding to treatment, Croft was feeling almost back to normal, and his doctors were hopeful. Just before the pandemic, he and Kain had taken a trip to Key West, Fla., to celebrate his prognosis and her birthday.

On May 24, 2020, he was too sick to rise from bed, and Kain took him to Sibley’s emergency room. It was the last time she saw her husband of 19 years face-to-face. After testing positive for the coronavirus, he received the drug remdesivir, but his condition continued to worsen. He was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital and placed on a ventilator.

Croft’s illness coincided almost exactly with America’s second cataclysmic event of 2020: the death of George Floyd.

Croft, feverish, was hospitalized the day before Floyd lost consciousness with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was later convicted of murder.

As Americans took to the streets in the largest racial justice protests since the civil rights era, Croft lay alone in quarantined hospital beds. When he showed signs of improvement and was taken off the ventilator at Hopkins, he suffered from the severe disorientation that afflicts many patients after extubation.

Four days after Croft came off the ventilator, one of his lungs collapsed. He died June 20, hours after protesters toppled the only outdoor Confederate statue in D.C. That night, after driving back to Washington from Baltimore — and unwilling to return to the house in Anacostia — Kain, Gunnar and Helima Croft stayed in a hotel just north of the White House. Looking out the windows, they could see below them a new display of enormous yellow letters painted across two blocks of 16th Street NW: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Almost a year later, the house in Anacostia can still be a forbidding place. On the Sunday morning after their lunch in D.C., Gunnar and his grandmother sit down again to sort through Howard Croft’s old documents and photos. But Kain has a vacant and overwhelmed look as she sits at the dining room table spread with pieces of her husband’s past, like someone surveying the disassembled parts of an inordinately complex machine.

“There are good days, and there are bad days,” she says.

Around noon they pull out of the driveway and begin the drive north to Providence, their work unfinished. But Gunnar is hopeful that one mystery, at least, will soon be solved.

He can’t stop wondering about Daniel H. Potter, the formerly enslaved man whose obituary has been preserved all these years, tucked into the Croft family Bible. It is a small question among many that Gunnar has about his grandfather’s life, but it is in theory answerable.

Following Kain’s suggestion, he asks Charles Croft, the nonagenarian uncle in Harrisburg, who Potter was, and why he was important to the Croft family.

Charles says he has no idea.

The family Bible, obtained as influenza was killing hundreds of thousands of Americans a century ago, was a prized possession of Howard’s grandmother, Alda Croft. She survived the great pandemic of her generation, and eventually shared the Bible’s stories and its secrets with her beloved grandson.

But Howard Croft did not.

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