When Helima Croft was growing up in Anacostia during the 1980s, she would often get “the question” from her father, Howard Croft.
“What side are you on?” Howard would ask his young daughter in his quiet, deliberate and thoughtful manner.
“The side of the working man!” Helima would answer enthusiastically.
Howard Croft, ’60s voting rights activist in the turbulent South, crusader for social and racial justice, urban studies professor at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), pioneer of the Lorton Project to educate prisoners, advocate for prison reforms, labor union organizer, longtime Anacostia resident, devoted father and proud grandfather, died June 20 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was 78.
Croft died of complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
At the time of his death, Croft was looking forward to campaigning to defeat President Trump in November, friends and family say. He had campaigned for every Democratic presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy in 1960 and planned to campaign for Joe Biden and push forward issues he had championed that have been brought to the forefront again by the Black Lives Matter protests.
“Howard was on the cutting edge of every civil rights movement from the 1960s on,” said Frank Smith, former D.C. Council member and founding director of the African American Civil War Museum in the Shaw neighborhood of northwest D.C.
Croft and Smith first met in 1963 in Mississippi, where Croft had traveled after earning his undergraduate degree from Duquesne University. Both worked for the Child Development Group, the first Head Start program in the nation sanctioned by the federal government. But their main focus was on registering Blacks to vote in “burning” Mississippi.
“First of all, you had to find people who had the courage to take the risk,” said Smith, who grew up in Mississippi. “Then you had to raise money to pay the tax so they could take the test [required of Blacks to vote]. Then they had to take the test, and they had to pass a test. Then the week after they registered to take the test, their names and addresses were published in the county paper.
‘Then they got a visit from the Klan, or their mortgage was pulled for no reason,” Smith continued. “Houses were being shot into at night. It was a dangerous time. Young guys like Howard were really taking a risk.”
More than three decades later, Croft returned to Mississippi to visit the birth place of Fannie Lou Hamer, the Clarksdale Jail where he was housed in the ’60s for the crime of registering Blacks to vote, and the crossroads of Highways 69 and 41 outside of Clarksdale, where legend has it that bluesman Robert Johnson made his Faustian pact with the Devil, and the Delta Blues was born. Croft was a jazz and blues enthusiast.
During that trip, Croft traveled to Greenville, Miss. to visit Bob Boyd, former two-term Ward 6 D.C. school board member and a leading education activist in the District in the early Home Rule era. Boyd is among a sizable group of D.C. politicians and activists mentored by Croft.
“Howard really cherished his Lorton Prison classes,” Boyd said. “He used to talk about how Lorton students were so much better than his UDC students because he was the only outsider they would see each week, and they really paid attention.”
Boyd, Smith, family members and friends described being with Croft when he encountered his former Lorton students after they obtained their releases from prison. On these occasions, they told of how Croft proudly introduced his former students to everyone in his group and proclaimed their accomplishments.
“That’s a person for whom some historic marker needs to be erected where he lived,” Boyd said, referring to Croft’s home on U Street SE in Anacostia, where he lived for the past four decades, despite the ups and downs of the neighborhood. “He was someone who had a real impact behind the scenes.”
After Mississippi, Croft returned to college to earn a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. Through a series of community and labor organizing jobs, he soon made his way to D.C., where he quickly became a recognized voice for D.C. statehood, racial justice and prison education, as well as for UDC at a time when many in and out of power questioned its legitimacy.
“He was ahead of this time in standing up for the issues he cared about,” said Betty Ann Kane, a former D.C. school board member, at-large member of the D.C. Council and chair of the D.C. Public Service Commission. She noted that she and Croft were not always on the same side. “He was very persistent and very strong. And honest. But also someone you could deal with. You always had a feeling you could work things out. “
His style and ability to reach across ideological divides earned him appointments to the D.C. Parole Board and the Water and Sewer Administration, now known as D.C. Water.
What many people remember most about their encounters with Croft are the stimulating conversations they engaged in with him. He was regarded as a great storyteller, but he often expressed more interest in the person he was taking to at that moment, and wanted to discuss whatever they may be going through at the time.
“I just enjoyed being around him,” said Paul Friedman, who was head of Ward 6 Democrats in the Capitol Hill area during the 1990s and now heads a Virginia nonprofit advocating for stronger background checks on gun purchases. “He always had great insights.”
Tom Lindenfeld, a D.C. political consultant who helped elect three of the past four mayors of the District, described Croft as “irascible … but kind of a warm figure.”
He wore his sense of justice on his sleeve, and he wore his sense of outrage right out on the buttons,” Lindenfeld said. “And he never let it down. But he did it in a kind way that did not upset people.”
One of those mayors Lindenfeld helped elect was Adrian Fenty in 2006. But labor activist Rick Powell said the turning point for Fenty came when he received an early and unexpected endorsement from the International Service Employees Union. Powell, who along with most of the labor groups was backing D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp, credited Croft with working behind the scenes to secure that endorsement.
“None of us thought Fenty could win,” said Powell, political coordinator of the Metropolitan Labor Council at the time. “The [SEIU] endorsement gave him early momentum and credibility. And Howard did that.”
John Capozzi, statehood and D.C. political activist, said Croft always encouraged him to continue the push for D.C. Statehood, despite its often bleak chances.
“He always thought that we could win, and told me to keep fighting, never give up,” Capozzi said. “I hope that’s part of his legacy, that we finally pull this off. I know he cared a great deal about that.”
Croft not only encouraged his political allies to stay in the fight, he also forged lasting friendships on a more personal level.
“When my twin daughters were 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, they would call up Howard on Christmas Eve,” related Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “They thought they were calling Santa to find out how his trip around the world was going. He was always up to the task with a ‘Ho, ho, ho!’ Among his many other duties, he also played Santa Claus.”
Howard Ray Croft was born on Oct. 13, 1941, in Harrisburg, Pa. He was raised by his grandparents, and will be buried in a family ceremony July 3 alongside his great-grandparents in Mowersville, Pa. His great-grandmother and great-grandfather were the first members of his family born into freedom after the abolition of slavery. A memorial service in D.C. is being planned for his birthday in October.
He is survived by his wife, Cynthia Kain of D.C., son Kofi Graham, daughter-in-law Rayna and grandchildren Ashanti, 24, Sanaa, 10 and Amir, 13, of D.C., daughter Helima, son-in-law Gauti Eggertsson and grandsons Gunnar, 12, Oskar, 10, and Ari, 7, of New York City.
Croft wanted to make sure that his grandchildren — especially the three grandsons of Icelandic descent — understood their grandfather’s heritage. Frank Smith related that Howard frequently brought his grandchildren to the African-American Civil War Museum and pointed out the name of his great-great-great-grandfather, Alexander Baker, is among the thousands of Blacks who fought in the Union Army against the South. Grandson Oskar Alexander Baker Eggertsson is named after this family member.
The Croft family has asked that donations in Howard Croft’s name be made to the African American Civil War Museum (1925 Vermont Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20001).