OTL: Unspeakable

BBEVILLE, S.C. -- You are Marty Cann, and this is the moment you've feared since your family's secret got out two summers ago. It's not where you are -- an ordinary gas station in this town your family has called home since the 19th century -- it's the guy walking toward you. You didn't expect anything momentous to happen when you stopped to fill up on this summer day in 2008, but there he is, and he sees you. The two of you have said hello since all this started, but now you want to talk. You want to make things right, even though you have no idea how to do that. He's taller than you, of course -- once upon a time, he played fullback for the local high school -- but he seems almost forbidding up close, with his bald head and soul patch tilted down at you. You've got to say something. "Hey, Darrell," you blurt out. "Do we need to talk?"

Marty Cann
Outside the Lines
Like generations of his family before him, Marty Cann calls Abbeville, S.C., his home.

You are Darrell Crawford, 39 years old, and you weren't expecting to run into Marty Cann here. But Abbeville doesn't have a lot of gas stations, so it's not exactly a shock. You are still struggling with the fact that your family tragedy has become a public discussion, but you're a preacher, so you're used to having people watch you. No one would blame you if you yelled at him, or turned your back on him, or just kept right on walking as if he didn't exist. A simple murder would be tame in comparison to what happened. You have some anger pent up, to be sure, so maybe you decide not to let Marty off the hook that easily. You smile and say, "I'll let you know."

You are Marty Cann, and you wonder what that means. You understand how Darrell could be angry. You know a lot of people in town would be. The football coach at the high school where you work said, "If somebody did that to my family, they'd have to spend a lot of time on their hands and knees asking for forgiveness." That's an overwhelming weight to bear. But you also know you are one of the good guys. You've had two goals all of your life, for 51 years: be a good Christian man, and make your grandfather proud. He quit school when he was just a boy because his family lost everything in the Great Depression, and he wanted you to be the first Cann to get a college education. You did that. You grew up just down the road in Calhoun Falls, S.C., and you went to Austin Peay in Tennessee to get your degree in physical education. Then you came back here, to Abbeville, to work with kids. You've spent 27 years doing just that, getting to school early to play dodgeball with elementary school children in P.E. and helping special needs kids in the classroom by teaching them things such as the difference between nickels, dimes and quarters. In your spare time, for no pay, you've served as trainer for the Abbeville High School football team. You know your granddaddy would be proud, and you don't ever want to retire. But now, after everyone found out about this, you don't know whether the choice is still yours.

Darrell Crawford
Outside the Lines
Darrell Crawford has coached the Abbeville track team to two state championships.

You're Darrell Crawford, and you sometimes wonder why you even stay in this town. Sure, Abbeville is a historic treasure, with enough plaques and monuments to make Boston cast a jealous eye. But that history is not something for African-Americans to cherish. Not when the town commemorates the day in 1860 when townspeople gathered on a hill here and decided the United States was no place for them. A month later, South Carolina left the Union. And five years after that, in 1865, Jefferson Davis came back to Abbeville, sat in a huge chair in a gleaming white mansion and decided to call it quits. The Confederacy began and ended here in this little town, but some of the worst elements of that Dixie spirit remained. And they showed up in the town square on an October day in 1916 when your great-grandfather tried to sell his cottonseed to a white man.

You're Marty Cann, and you didn't know a thing about what happened almost 93 years ago. You didn't know your great-grandfather Jesse Cann came to the town square when an elderly black landowner tried to sell cottonseed and got into a fight with a friend of Jesse's. You didn't know your great-grandfather stabbed this black man in the back and led a mob to the jailhouse where the man was taken. You didn't know your great-grandfather and a bunch of other white men stormed the jail, dragged the man out into the daylight and took him to the fairgrounds. And you didn't know the black man was lynched, and Jesse Cann and his brother, Lester, were the first two men listed in the resulting arrest warrant. You had no idea about any of it until a reporter from The State newspaper in Columbia looked into the lynching in 2007 and came to town to ask you about it.

Marty Cann
Outside the Lines
Cann volunteers as the athletic trainer for the Abbeville High School football team.
Anthony Crawford
South Carolina Dept of Archives
A wealthy cotton farmer, Anthony Crawford owned 427 acres of land.

You're Darrell Crawford, and you know the whole story. Your great-grandfather Anthony Crawford was a rare black man who owned land. He owned 427 acres, to be exact, and he farmed cotton. He taught himself to read and write. He founded a church for other black people in Abbeville to come and worship. He held his family together when his wife died at an early age. Your great-grandfather came to the town square on that October day in 1916, a 65-year-old man just hoping to get a fair price for his cottonseed. He was lowballed, called an "uppity n-----." And when he lashed out, a mob gathered and swarmed him. Crawford hit a white man, named Cann, with a hammer and was then stabbed. But he was the one arrested and taken to jail. He nearly died from his wounds, there in that jail, but somehow he stayed alive long enough to feel the ground moving under his battered body as he was dragged to the fairgrounds by a group led by another Cann, named Jesse. Crawford had to know what was going to happen next. Did he feel the rope cinch around his neck? Did he hear the white man shouting from the low branch of a tree for his friends to wait for him to get down? You sometimes wonder whether your great-grandfather lasted long enough to hear the 200 gunshots ring out. You do know Anthony Crawford was dead, thank the Lord, by the time the mob whipped his body with branches and scraped the bullets out of the tree for souvenirs.

You're Marty Cann, and you told the reporter from the Columbia paper that the accused murderer must have been some other Cann. You know your dad, and you knew your granddad, and you know yourself, and a Cann simply couldn't kill a man, let alone lead a lynching. But the reporter showed you his research, and you were crushed. Then it got much worse: A great-grandson of the victim, Darrell Crawford, is also a coach at Abbeville High. You soul-searched for weeks, months, now years, as you and Darrell saw each other every now and then without really talking. What does it mean to be a Cann? Your dad doesn't want you talking about it. But part of you wonders why he didn't talk about it with you. "I was never told about this," you say. "I got a great mom and dad … but I never have been someone that has shared with them how I feel. And so this is an emotional-type thing and so, you know, I just …" You don't know how to finish that thought. Who could?

Abbeville, S.C.
Courtesy of South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia
A view of the Abbeville town square from around the time of Anthony Crawford's lynching in the early 20th century.
Abbeville, S.C.
Nik Kleinberg/ESPN.com
In a town known as the "Birthplace of the Confederacy," Anthony Crawford was taken from the prison, right, and lynched near the wooded area at left.

You're Darrell Crawford, and you think it's about time this came up. No one was ever even convicted of your ancestor's murder. There are so many tributes to the Confederacy in this town, but you don't even know where your great-grandfather is buried. A while back, there was talk of building a monument to Anthony Crawford here in Abbeville, and the city council gave its blessing. Nothing ever came of it, though, and no one knows why. So you visit the tree where you believe he was killed. You drive out along Highway 71, between Little River and Penny Creek, and you look out at all the land your family once owned. How much would it be worth now? Enough to give you a few years without worrying about money, which you can't help but do. The newspaper story was a tiny slice of delayed justice, but it made sports out to be a way to mend fences. Sports can't do that. "Nothing can be done," you say, "to restore what's been taken."

You're Marty Cann, and you've done nothing wrong. "My grandfather realized racism was evil," you say. "He showed me we got to love people no matter what they look like." You have 27 years of memories of black schoolchildren hugging you, coming to you for counsel, even crying as they told you goodbye after graduation. One little girl, who was black, came to school one morning in tears because her father had gone to jail. You promised to be her "daddy at school." Now you're supposed to answer for a man who died when you were 2? You feel you have to speak up. It's the Christian thing to do, for one. "I'd like the Cann name to be a name you can trust," you say. "A name that means caring. A name that means doing the right thing no matter how hard it is." You know a black child will come up to you and ask about this. You know you will have to explain that you love him no matter whether he is black or white. So explain that to the world. You are not a bigot. You lost your hair at 20, and you felt completely shunned. You promised yourself you would always look at other points of view. Now is your chance to be the Cann you always promised yourself you would be. But you're scared. "It's hard to talk about race," you say. "It's easier not to talk about it and be safe than be accused of racism."

Darrell Crawford
Outside the Lines
Crawford, preaching at St. Paul's AME Church in Abbeville County, often teaches his congregation about forgiveness.
Darrell Crawford explains why his family stayed in Abbeville after his great-grandfather's lynching. Then, Marty Cann discusses how far the country has come in the area of race relations.

You're Darrell Crawford, and every Sunday at a 100-year-old Baptist church in town, you preach a message of healing. You preach about Jericho, the ancient city that was cursed by Joshua. Jericho survived, and so does Abbeville. "Tear down your walls!" you shout, and you see the worshippers nod. Maybe it's time to tear down your own walls. "Anthony would want me to talk to Marty," you say, and you're willing. You spend your spare time just the way Marty does, coaching kids at Abbeville High. You're the coach of the boys' track team, and your guys have won two state titles even though the school's track is just a strip of worn grass -- no place to practice, no home meets. You head an alternative education program for at-risk children. There is no extra time for regret or anger in this town -- not when people are poor and getting poorer. They were going to build a prison here, but that never happened. Abbeville is more than 100 miles from Atlanta, Charleston, S.C., and Charlotte, N.C. It used to be a bustling stop on the train ride between dry counties, but now it's far from everything. So Abbeville needs inspiration, and you have it. Back when you were just out of high school, your kidneys failed. Getting out of bed took forever. Going to church on Sunday was a triumph. You prayed for help, day and night, and you got it. One kidney came from your sister, Suzette. The other came from a complete stranger, a colleague of Suzette's named Jennie Copps. That woman saved your life, and you cry at the mention of her name. No matter who asks, you always make sure to say through your tears that Jennie is a white woman. And you forgive Marty Cann. You know he's a good man. But you wonder whether forgiveness is a little too close to forgetting. The Abbeville High principal, Steve Glenn, who is white, says this of the lynching: "People who did that are dead and gone. Why bring it up? Why stir it?" But that's exactly why the lynching needs to be brought up again and again. There is still hatred in America. There is still racism everywhere. There is still threat. It's not on Marty to try to fix the world, but it certainly isn't on you.

You're Marty Cann, and there's not much you can do. You asked whether Darrell wanted to talk at the gas station. It is in your heart to apologize. But the person you really want to sit down with is your great-grandfather. You'd ask whether he was drunk. You'd ask whether he was sorry. You'd ask whether he would change anything. All you really want is to know the truth about what happened. But you never will. So when you see Darrell, you see a brother, a fellow coach, a man hurting even more than you. But you also see a reminder of a shame that will shadow you for the rest of your life.

You're Darrell Crawford, and you know there's not much Marty can do. You'd love to talk to his great-grandfather, too, to ask him all the tough questions. But it's too late. It will always be too late. And Marty's just as helpless as you are. So when you see him, at the gas station and in the town square and at school, you give him a warm hello. But that's it. Because when you see Marty, you also see Cann. And that leaves you right back where you started, stuck in the middle. Forever.

Marty Cann
Outside the Lines
Cann has worked with schoolchildren for 27 years, a role he relishes.

You're Dureal Elmore, you're Abbeville's top running back, and you're in pain. It's halftime of the Panthers' second-round playoff game after a third consecutive undefeated regular season, and the team needs you to make a big play in the second half. You limp into the trainer's room, wet from the rain, and you hop up onto the table. Coach Cann walks in and unwraps and rewraps your bad left ankle, then rubs antiseptic on the scrapes all over your arms. It was Coach Cann who helped you play this game, coming to school on weekends to get the "slushbucket" of frigid water ready for that ankle and driving you home afterward. Coach Cann has known your father since before you were born, when they bagged groceries together at Bi-Lo. Now here comes Coach Crawford. He pats you on the shoulder and looks you in the eye and nods. He reaches out a hand, and you grab it. It was Coach Crawford who helped you with your breakaway speed, shaving two-tenths of a second off your 40 time with countless sprints on that grass track. Coach Cann and Coach Crawford don't make eye contact with each other. They don't say anything. But you don't notice. You're thinking about the second half. And when your team falls behind and your offense stalls, they trust you with the ball. They trust you with the game. It's a trust well earned. You plow into the line, break through the pile and burst into the open field, using that breakaway speed and that rehabbed ankle. You're gone, flying toward the end zone and your team's last game-winning score of the year. And when you turn around, there they are in the mist of the sideline: Coach Cann and Coach Crawford, within shouting distance of each other but not speaking distance. For a few sweet moments, nobody has to say a word.

Eric Adelson is a contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

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Darrell Crawford, Marty Cann
Outside the Lines
Crawford and Cann share a common passion for working with kids and for advancing Abbeville athletics.