Peter Crosby (1844-1884)

Portrait of Sheriff Peter Crosby by high school student Michael Neal, winner of a Black History Month Art contest, May 21, 2015
Courtesy Warren County Sheriff

Peter Crosby was born in 1844 and lived twenty years in Clark County, Mississippi. He moved to Vicksburg in 1864 and enlisted at the age of 20 where he became a member of the US Colored Troops in Company C, 5th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. Cosby was a laborer when he enlisted in the U.S. Army but over the next decade he accumulated $5,000 worth of property making him one of the most prosperous Black citizens in the community by 1875. In 1872 he was part of a black political group called the Vicksburg Ring that took control of city politics.

On November 4, 1873, Peter Crosby was elected sheriff of Warren County which included Vicksburg, the largest city and county seat. As Warren County black leaders began to spend tax money on black education and infrastructure that helped “all” citizens, white conservatives became infuriated.  They noted that
Blacks in Warren County, Mississippi were acquiring enough taxable property and real estate to pose a threat to the economic control of the area that had long been exclusively in the hands of white landowners.

By 1875 the local White League, a white supremacist organization, falsely accused Vicksburg’s black leaders of corruption.  They vowed to “redeem” local politics, meaning to drive Black officeholders from power. The League realized that as long as local black citizens voted and continued to own land, they posed a threat to white political and economic supremacy. Local White League members focused on Sheriff Peter Crosby who was the most powerful black elected official in the county.

After his election in November 1873, Cosby assumed the Sheriff’s office on January 1, 1874. Eleven months later, on December 2, 1874, members of the white Taxpayers’ League met at Crosby’s office and demanded his resignation.  He refused. The group left and returned with a mob of six hundred white men armed with pistols and rifles.  They surrounded the Warren County Courthouse and forced Crosby’s resignation at gunpoint. Recognizing that he and his supporters were outnumbered, he  signed the resignation document and fled the city but not before calling for help.

On Monday, December 7, 1874, Black Vicksburg citizens who supported Crosby organized an effort to help him regain his office. When they marched on the Courthouse, Whites met them at the Vicksburg city limits demanding they return to their homes. Although most of the unarmed Black men complied and began to depart, the Whites opened fire slaying many of them. Other white mobs attacked and killed dozens of Black citizens in an act of racial terrorism that would later become known as the “Vicksburg Massacre.”

Following this brutal attack, federal troops were sent to Vicksburg to restore order and Peter Crosby was reinstated as sheriff. He hired a white man, J.P. Gilmer, to serve as one of his deputies. When Gilmer refused to follow the Sheriff’s orders, he tried to have the deputy removed from office.  Gilmer then shot Sheriff Crosby in the head on June 7, 1875. He was arrested for attempted murder but never brought to trial. Crosby survived the shooting but never made a full recovery and had to serve the remainder of his term through a white citizen.  He died in Vicksburg on March 15, 1884 at the age of 40.

The violence and intimidation tactics utilized by White Mississippians intent on restoring white supremacy soon enabled forces antagonistic to the aims of Reconstruction and racial equality to regain power in Mississippi. Despite the shooting of Sheriff Crosby, Vicksburg and Warren County blacks continued to exercise some political power even after the state of Mississippi was “redeemed” by white supremacists.  Because local African Americans continued to vote into the 1880s, Vicksburg became a haven for Mississippi Blacks fleeing other areas of the state.