Physician, civic leader, political activist. Crum was born on February 9, 1859, the son of Darius Crum, a German American, and Charlotte C. Crum, a free woman of color. He grew up near Orangeburg. In 1875 he graduated from Avery Normal Institute in Charleston, then attended the University of South Carolina and later Howard University, where he earned a medical degree in 1881. Returning to Charleston, he began his practice and later joined the staff of the African American–operated McClennan Hospital and Training School for Nurses. Crum eventually became the hospital’s chief administrator and Charleston’s most prominent black resident. In 1883 he married Ellen Craft, the daughter of the famous fugitive slave abolitionists William and Ellen Craft of Georgia. Crum also enjoyed close relations with nationally prominent African Americans, such as the Washington, D.C., businessman Whitefield McKinlay and the newspaper editors Harry Smith and T. Thomas Fortune. Crum’s most important friendship was with Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and sometime political adviser to Republican presidents, who was considered the most influential African American leader in the country. Crum and Washington organized the Negro Department at the 1901–1902 South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition in Charleston.
Crum was extensively involved in politics, chairing the Charleston County Republican Party for more than two decades and serving as a delegate to party national conventions from 1884 to 1904. During this era of rising disfranchisement, two conflicting trends affected southern Republicanism. African American politicians sought to retain influence through the party machinery and by securing federal patronage. White Republicans, however, tried to strengthen the party by attracting Democrats with jobs and party influence. South Carolina Republicans were deeply divided by this conflict, which worsened because neither President William McKinley nor President Theodore Roosevelt (by 1902) appointed blacks to important positions in the state. Acting on Washington’s recommendation, however, Roosevelt nominated Crum as collector of customs for the port of Charleston in late 1902. The action was an attempt to unify the Republican Party in South Carolina, while pacifying African American critics in the state and in the North.
Widespread southern opposition to the nomination catapulted Crum into national prominence. Even the New York Times and the New York Herald criticized the nomination as ill advised. In South Carolina, U.S. Senator Ben Tillman and the editor James C. Hemphill of the Charleston News and Courier jointly denounced Crum. Tillman temporarily derailed the nomination, but Roosevelt kept Crum in the position through interim appointments, until his January 1905 confirmation. Stunned by his critics, Roosevelt won praise for his stand among African Americans, for whom Crum’s nomination had become a cause célèbre. In 1904 the South Carolina delegation to the Republican national convention was unanimously committed to Roosevelt, and intraparty cooperation prevailed.
Crum continued as collector through Roosevelt’s second term but resigned after William Taft became president in 1909. In exchange for his cooperation, Taft appointed Crum as minister to Liberia, a diplomatic post traditionally held by African Americans. He discharged his responsibilities capably during a particularly difficult period in Liberia’s history. In the summer of 1912 he contracted an illness and returned to Charleston, where he died on December 7, 1912.
Gatewood, Willard B. “Theodore Roosevelt and Southern Republicans: The Case of South Carolina, 1901–1904.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 70 (October 1969): 251–66.
———. “William D. Crum: A Negro in Politics.” Journal of Negro History 53 (October 1968): 301–20.
Padgett, James A. “Ministers to Liberia and Their Diplomacy.” Journal of Negro History 22 (January 1937): 50–92.
Scheiner, Seth M. “President Theodore Roosevelt and the Negro, 1901–1908.” Journal of Negro History 47 (July 1962): 169–82.