Blood at the Root

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Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America  
Author(s) Patrick Phillips
Publisher W. W. Norton and Company
Publication date 2016-09-20
Pages 302
ISBN 9780393293012

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America (2016) is author Patrick Phillips’ work detailing the complex, violent, surprising, and lawless race relations of Forsyth County, Georgia throughout the 20th century. Though the book chronicles over 100 years of history in the county seat of Cumming, tracing it from small, farm-based downtown to bustling modern suburb, the primary focus of the work centers on the 1912 rape and murder of white resident Mae Crow, the subsequent arrest and trial of six poor African American farmers, and the resulting expulsion of the county’s nearly 1,100 black residents. Though terrorizing, lynching, expelling, and denying the rights of black people was hardly uncommon for early 20th century Georgia, Forsyth County would stand alone in that after the 1912 exodus, the county would remain entirely white until the 1990s. Phillips navigates back in time through the public record to attempt to discover the origins, reasons, and legality of the county become a known haven for “whites only.” Inspired by stories from his own childhood growing up around Cumming, and by a photograph of those arrested that fateful day in 1912, Phillips wrote Blood at the Root not only to uncover the truth of the county’s racist history, but ultimately “to honor the dead by leaving a fuller account of what they endured and all that they and their descendants lost.” (xxii)

The story of black expulsion from Forsyth begins long before 1912, when the white population of the county consciously removed another group of long-established residents from its borders. Though many native lands had already been stolen throughout Georgia by force, duplicitous treaties, and coercion, thousands of Cherokees remained in the state on official Cherokee land until the 1830s. However, beginning with the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, a fraudulent document by nearly all accounts not supported by most Cherokee people, Georgians began taking Cherokee land around Forsyth county and the mountains to the north. Additionally, following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, white Americans began forcefully removing tribes across the Southeast from their ancestral lands. Ultimately, of the more than 16,000 Cherokees who were forcibly marched from Georgia to Oklahoma in the winter of 1838, roughly one quarter of them died on the Trail of Tears. Shortly after this initial racial expulsion, whites began to flood into the mountains of North Georgia, including Forsyth County, many bringing with them their black enslaved laborers. The historical grounds for race-based ideas of ownership, rights, and property were ingrained in the consciousness of the county and across the Southeast long before the black and white racial conflicts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Post-Civil War and Emancipation, Forsyth County saw the freed black population remain in the area and sometimes on the same land that they had worked for generations. By 1912, the black population of Forsyth had swelled to nearly 1,100 people, representing a diverse group of individuals and families living in scattered agricultural communities. These inhabitants ranged from illiterate sharecroppers to schoolteachers and reverends to upper-middle class planters; in the span of just 50 years, those who had once been enslaved were now able to own property, obtain an education, and in theory, gain political power and authority. All of this was incredibly threatening to the white leaders and commoners alike in Forsyth, who viewed potential and concrete black progress as an assault on their own status quo. In order to stem this progression, often corrupt law officers found nearly any excuse to arrest black people committing what could be considered an offense. These white fears also bubbled over into the popular mythology of the Southeast of the “scary black male rapist,” who would outrage and threaten white womanhood without care or concern. Needless to say, when white, 18-year-old Mae Crow was found beaten, raped, and close to death in the woods in the small Forsyth community of Oscarville, just one week after the alleged rape of Ellen Grice by a black man, white residents of Forsyth County were on high alert and looking for black blood.

By the time Mae Crow eventually died of her injuries- and murder was added to the list of charges- not one, but six African American Forsyth residents had been arrested in relation to the crimes committed against her: Jane and Oscar Daniel, Toney Howell, Ed Collins, Isaiah Pirkle, and Ernest Knox. Though evidence was circumstantial at best, and all confessions were obtained under extreme duress, what amounted to a sham of a trial, with lawyers and judges who would later join the Ku Klux Klan, resulted in an all-white male jury convicting Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel, eventually sentencing them to death by hanging. Keeping the men alive until the execution was in itself a tall order, and the men were repeatedly transported back and forth from Atlanta to Cumming via the Georgia National Guard for their own protection from the growing lynch-mob of white Forsyth residents. Though leaders in the county claimed that these mobs were outsiders coming in from the mountains, many of the faces present in what became known as the night riders were familiar to the black populations they intimidated, and assaulted. These two themes, of Atlanta as a relative safe-haven and pinning racist crimes to others, occur time and time again throughout Blood at the Root.

In the time between the trial and the scheduled execution, preparations were being made for the deaths of Knox and Daniel, who were still teenagers. Cumming Mayor Charlie Harris, who could be considered if not progressive then at least open to growth and business-minded, knew the potential dangers and attention the county would receive if the execution turned from law to lawlessness. He asked for assistance once again from Georgia Governor Joseph Mackey Brown and the Guard. However, despite precautions and preparations, Mayor Harris met resistance from not only county residents but from his own Sherriff, Bill Reid. If one can identify a singular villain in this hideous, sprawling story, Phillips does an excellent job of painting a vile portrait of the corrupt lawman in Sherriff Reid. Reid had conveniently “disappeared” just prior to a previous lynch mob, and Harris thought he would do little to maintain decorum at the execution. His fears were valid: Reid not only allowed for plain view of the executions to thousands of attendants from all over the county, but he personally stole the noose used to hang Knox and Daniel, leaving a piece in the 1912 minutes book in the county courthouse well into the 1980s. (138) With the law far from their sides and violent night riders running rampant throughout the county, black Forsyth residents began to fear for their lives in the aftermath of the trial and execution. In what could be easily traced as a precursor to the actions of the KKK, white residents of Forsyth County began to once again systematically and forcibly remove an entire race from their borders, through coordinated actions against African American families ranging from intimidation, torching, dynamite, shootings, and threats of lynching. By 1915, all of the 1,098 black residents of Forsyth County had left either “voluntarily” or at gunpoint, and once again, white residents began to seize property, homes, and land that many viewed as rightfully theirs. Any time a black person so much as entered Forsyth County, there seemed to always be reason for fear, intimidation, and taunts, if not outright arrest, even long after the era of Jim Crow. Residents perpetuated this “whites only” mentality for the next 75 years, and well into the 1980s, the black population of Forsyth County hovered at zero.

Only through the advancement of two of Phillips’ other recurring themes in the book do readers finally begin to witness real change come to Forsyth County. Phillips brings light to a largely untold story through painstaking archival research in public records, newspapers, and recorded/ in-person interviews. Because many of these remained internal to the county, much of the world outside North Georgia was unaware of the situation in Forsyth. However, media coverage of the 1987 Brotherhood Marches, led by Atlanta-based civil rights activist Hosea Williams, allowed the rest of the world to see that pockets of the Southeast were seemingly stuck in a by-gone era. When Williams arrived in Cumming to lead a peaceful protest with other black activists, he was met with thousands of what some would describe as counter protesters. Others, including the media and people viewing the county for the first time, would more accurately describe this group as eerily like the 1912 lynch mobs, hurling rocks and racial epithets at the marchers. Once again, the Guard was unable to fully protect this crowd, and they were forced to retreat. However, when the media caught wind of the country’s “most racist county,” the protesters returned, this time under the allied protection of Sherriff Wesley Walraven, a more adequate army of Guard and State Troopers, and much larger presence of the media. Oprah Winfrey even personally conducted an interview with the white residents of the county, finally exposing to the world the true racist messages that many people within the county still held. With this increased media coverage, along with a boom of economic development following Atlanta suburban sprawl from 1980 to the present day, Forsyth has made what could be considered progress: African Americans, as well as other races, now not only reside within the county, but thrive once again as land and business owners, even having been elected to local political posts. Regardless, the black population of Forsyth County remains less than 3%- one of the lowest in Georgia- and the county has yet to issue a formal apology or reparations to the descendants of the victims of the 1912 expulsion. As evidence to the contrary, a statue of Confederate leader and “unrepentant white supremacist” Hiram Parks Bell remains in downtown Cumming to this day. (41)

The author provides an interesting perspective from which to write this book. As a white, former resident of Forsyth County with outspokenly progressive parents, Phillips grew up in a unique position- aware of the racist opinions of many of his classmates and their families, but with a white family at home who was not complicit in the county’s racist notions. Though Phillips is explicit in his depictions of the racism that permeated Forsyth throughout its history, a criticism of the work is that he plays into one of his own recurring themes: white Forsyth residents pinning the racism of the county on others. While Phillips' views and family were certainly not guilty of the overt racist taunts and threats of many of their contemporaries, he does not go far enough in detailing the guilt of all white people in systemic racism. That being said, this book occupies a unique place in the 20th century historiography on race, in that it uses almost entirely primary sources to inform historians, readers, and Southerners about an unfamiliar story in a very familiar place.