A gripping tale of racial cleansing in Forsyth County, Georgia, and a harrowing testament to the deep roots of racial violence in America. Forsyth County, Georgia, at the turn of the twentieth century was home to a large African American community that included ministers and teachers, farmers and field hands, tradesmen, servants, and children. Many black residents were poor sharecroppers, but others owned their own farms and the land on which they'd founded the county's thriving black churches. But then in September of 1912, three young black laborers were accused of raping and murdering a white girl. One man was dragged from a jail cell and lynched on the town square, two teenagers were hung after a one-day trial, and soon bands of white "night riders" launched a coordinated campaign of arson and terror, driving all 1,098 black citizens out of the county. In the wake of the expulsions, whites harvested the crops and took over the livestock of their former neighbors, and quietly laid claim to "abandoned" land. The charred ruins of homes and churches disappeared into the weeds, until the people and places of black Forsyth were forgotten. National Book Award finalist Patrick Phillips tells Forsyth's tragic story in vivid detail and traces its long history of racial violence all the way back to antebellum Georgia. Recalling his own childhood in the 1970s and '80s, Phillips sheds light on the communal crimes of his hometown and the violent means by which locals kept Forsyth "all white" well into the 1990s. Blood at the Root is a sweeping American tale that spans the Cherokee removals of the 1830s, the hope and promise of Reconstruction, and the crushing injustice of Forsyth's racial cleansing. With bold storytelling and lyrical prose, Phillips breaks a century-long silence and uncovers a history of racial terrorism that continues to shape America in the twenty-first century.
Earlier still, the ancestors of those same racists took over the area in the 1830s, when military troops rounded up 16,000 Cherokee natives and drove them out of Georgia "like a herd of livestock", forcing their relocation to Oklahoma. The horrors of Reconstruction are also recounted, where those very same wealthy families that participated in the 1912 and 1987 events used being "bound out", or working for no wages for years, to keep their slave labor in the fields.
Forsyth County was 100% white until recently, and as late as 1990, black people were shot at and chased out of its small towns. The white author grew up in the county when it was rural and not yet part of Atlanta's booming sprawl. For this book, Phillips researched the cause of the expulsion and subsequent 100% whiteness of the county towns. He details the horrors of 1912, where the "rape" of a young white girl and the rape and murder of another white girl culminated in lynching, horsewhipping, arson, and railroading and convictions of three young black men, with only coerced evidence presented.
This should be used as a textbook, along with "Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County" by Kristen Green, which details enforcement of segregated schools by the closing of all public schools in a VA county until 1986.
Trigger warning: anyone of conscience will find this to be a necessary and incredibly painful read.
18-year old 'white' Mae Crow is missing; found raped and assaulted. Inexplicably no serious investigation was undertaken. Law and reason may have been on the books in government and in local courthouses but did little good in the daily lives of black citizens. Mae's assault and resulting death was huge in Forsyth. It was easy for whites who hated blacks to rile up mostly illiterate but some educated white townspeople that blacks were responsible; creating armed and violent mobs looking for blacks to lynch. Why find out who committed the crime when you have blacks conveniently living near Mae's family's farm? Hiram Parks Bell, white supremacist, forces Ernest Knox to 'confess' or be lynched, (a typical torture at that time), and brings him and Oscar Daniel to jail. Other black 'witnesses' are brought along as well. Thankfully, Mayor Charlie Harris prevents the evil Sheriff Bill Reid from lynching them all at once.
But after another white woman says she saw black men in her bedroom, Big Rob Edwards is found and brought to jail where Reid 'disappears' allowing white mob to break in, attack, shoot and lynch him!
Black citizens saw the anger and hatred and many left for Atlanta. White mobs threaten poor blacks to leave town. Black homes and churches are burned down so they have no place to live. Even after the Knox and Daniel joke of a trial, and their lynchings, white mobs continue and escalate threats to black farm owners, giving them little or no compensation to leave. Mayor Harris tries to get the governor to intervene but other than holding a few meetings, nothing is done to stop the threats, fires and expulsions! Wealthy white land-owners protect their black employees until the white mobs threaten them as well. The press reveals little of what is actually going on until years later. They report that Forsyth is a golly-gee great town, and any troubles reported are due to 'outsiders.'
Soon all black citizens are gone, for years and years! Any blacks who inadvertently stop in Forsyth are told to leave immediately, or in the case of Firefight Miguel Marcelli and his girl friend Shirley, get shot at and nearly killed in 1980!!
Civil Rights activists decide to hold a Brotherhood March in Forsyth in 1987. Group receives threatening calls but together with Hosea Williams they go ahead with plan but are greeted by approx. 2,500 racist whites who throw sticks and stones at them. Sheriff tells marchers he can't guarantee their safety as he doesn't have large enough staff. Second march includes many more marchers, and more protection for them. Williams sets up Coalition to End Fear and Intimidation in Forsyth County asking Forsyth to apologize and compensate black descendants for expulsion. Forsyth responds by saying that blacks are the ones causing trouble! But in 1988 the KKK is sued and takes a big hit financially which slows and cripples their racist endeavors.
Very slowly, blacks move into Forsyth. Sadly, a statue of Hiram Parks Bell, defender of white over black domination greets visitors! No sign or statue to note the historical illegal lynchings, fires, or expulsions of American citizens (except some documents in Forsyth's Courthouse)!
And were Mae Crow's attacker(s) ever discovered?
The historical accounts are disturbing enough but it is often too easy to dismiss past acts as things that would never happen again or happen here. The truly horrific part is the way this unlawful and inhuman sense of racial entitlement has survived to contemporary time. As a nice illustration to debunk the feeling many of these whites had (have) of considering the land theirs Phillips discusses the Cherokee removal from these lands, yet another inhuman action from these same white families and similar ones. It doesn't matter who was on the land first, the whites of the area considered it theirs, the very definition of unwarranted entitlement.
I highly recommend this book to readers with an interest in the topic of American race relations, whether that interest be historical, sociological, legal or any other. In describing events, such as a similar attempt in another county that was squashed by both citizens and law, many aspects are ripe for discussion. For instance, while whites were indeed arrested and convicted for attacks on blacks, another factor was the presence of white interest (the landowner in one case and the construction company owner in the other) which may well have helped sway sentiment away from a pure white on black attack.
Reviewed from a copy made available through Goodreads First Reads.
Forsyth county lies just outside of Atlanta, Georgia and Patrick Phillips moved there with his family in the 1980s, when the county still didn't allow non-white people to live, or even pass through there. In 1987, his family went to march with Civil Rights campaigners seeking to integrate the county, but when the busloads of peaceful marchers were turned back by crowds of Forsyth county residents, Phillips and his family had to have the police escort them home. Then Phillips left for university and his hometown became just a colorful topic of conversation.
Years later, he has written a book about how in 1912, after one woman is discovered in bed with a black man and another is discovered murdered in the woods, angry mobs drove all African Americans from the county. And they and their descendants kept Forsyth county free of anyone not seen as white until the 1990s. Phillips is rigorous in his research and the story he tells is shocking and difficult to read about, but is tremendously important -- it's essential reading given how recently the county was integrated and how the attitudes still exist today.
Worth mentioning: the book is masterfully researched and written by someone who grew up in Forsyth. This is both an important history, and a very personal journey and it really works.