Charlie Crump celebrated his 90th birthday last month at the retirement community located on a golf course where he resides in Georgia. His family had thrown a big party one year earlier for his 89th, with friends from his hometown of Long Island traveling down to celebrate.
But the ongoing threat of COVID-19 meant no large gathering for this year’s milestone, and Mr. Crump celebrated in pandemic-style: a parade of a few dozen neighbors on golf carts drove past his home and wished him a happy birthday from afar.
“I was very much surprised,” he said. “It’s a good community.”
Mr. Crump, born and raised in Riverhead, moved down South to live near his two sons a few years after his wife, Betsy, died just shy of age 72.
“It’s OK,” he said of life in the South. “I never dreamed that I’d be living in Georgia, but here I am.”
In Riverhead, Mr. Crump rose from humble beginnings in a farming family to build an indelible legacy as a pillar of the community and trailblazer for African Americans as he became the first Black elected official in Riverhead Town. After first being appointed to the position of town assessor by the Riverhead Town Board, Mr. Crump was elected to the office in 1974, serving for nine years and as the board’s chairman for five. He went on to become the first Black department chief in the Town of Huntington when he replaced a retiring assessor.
Mr. Crump, an Air Force veteran, had worked at Brookhaven National Lab for nearly two decades before becoming Riverhead Town’s tax assessor.
“I was very interested in politics and there weren’t any minorities involved at the time, so I said minorities should be involved,” he said. “I was appointed assessor to finish out an unexpired term and then I ran a couple times myself.”
He said it was “risky” running for office.
“I had three sons at the time, but I felt I needed to take the chance,” he said. “Anyhow, it worked out very well for me.”
Dr. Mark Crump, who goes by Tony, was the middle child and was around 17 when his dad was first appointed tax assessor.
“It was definitely a big deal,” Dr. Crump, 64, said. “He decided to take a chance and he did real well at it.”
He said his father was a “self-made man” who was well respected in the community and the kind of person who was never boastful. He recalled how his father attended night school at Suffolk County Community College to earn an associate degree, which was a key milestone for him to ultimately break the barrier. Mr. Crump became a member of the International Association of Assessing Officers, a designation that was a big accomplishment at the time, his son said. In 1990, he was appointed as the Suffolk County Director of Real Property Tax Service Agency by the Suffolk County executive.
“He was good with people and he knew his stuff,” said Dr. Crump, who is an internal medicine physician specializing in diabetes care. “He was a people person.”
Education was the biggest focus in the Crump household. Dr. Crump was a standout athlete at Riverhead High School as a teenager, playing football, basketball and baseball. But it was always education that his father and mother reinforced in their children. (Mr. Crump’s oldest son, Charles Steven, died in a car accident in 1998). Dr. Crump’s mother graduated from Riverhead High School in the top 10 of the Class of 1951. She married young and went back to school at night while raising three boys so she could eventually become a teacher at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School. She taught for 20 years.
“She practiced what she preached. Education was the key for us to advance,” Dr. Crump said. “What better example than to go back to school and get more education? I feel privileged that I had parents like that.”
Even as his dad shuffled multiple jobs at times in his life, he always found a way to stay involved with whatever his boys got into. He coached in the Riverhead Little League and Pop Warner football. He became president of the Riverhead Little League.
I felt I needed to take the chance.Charlie Crump
He also served as president of the Clearview Civic Association where he was a prominent voice for the African American community. In one particular case, he was instrumental in blocking a “trash truck” depot that was planned in the Clearview community.
“The tendency was to put that kind of stuff in the minority communities,” he said.
Carnal Hobson, a Riverhead native who now lives in Virginia, said Mr. Crump was also key in bringing a Black voice to the predominantly white civic associations at the time.
“Whenever a decision was to be made regarding the future direction of Riverhead, Mr. Crump was within earshot to make sure that the African American community had a stake in the decision making,” he said.
Mr. Crump said the Democratic Party in Riverhead had approached him about considering a run for town supervisor. He opted not to pursue that path and moved onto his role in Huntington, a more affluent town that presented a greater challenge as assessor.
“Although his post was within the tax assessors office, his presence alone within the four walls of the Riverhead Town Hall gave the African American community a sense of pride and finally a sense of inclusion,” Mr. Hobson said. “Mr. Crump achieved this during a time when there wasn’t anyone who spoke for us in the town affairs let alone looked like us.”
As he reflected on his lengthy career last week, Mr. Crump said his greatest sense of pride came from watching his boys excel.
“I think that I accomplished the maximum that I possibly could, but I was more proud of the kids than me,” he said.