10 February 2018

Blood at the Root: a Racial Cleansing in America (Book Review)

Title:  Blood at the Root: a Racial Cleansing in America
Author: Patrick Phillips
Publication: 2016, W. W. Norton Company
Hardcover noted as having 320 pages. I read the Kindle edition.
Short Synopsis: In the fall of 1912, the entire African American community of Forsyth County, Georgia was literally run out of and banished from the county by the white population. An all-white county remained for decades, even close to a century. The book explores why and how this happened. It's a dark read, but one that is important (I believe) for the citizens of the United States, even to this day.

What Happened

In early September 1912, nineteen-year-old Mae Crow, who had been missing, was found in the woods of Forsyth County, Georgia.  This daughter of well-known citizens of Oscarville, Leonidas Alonzo and Azzie Jane Bennett Crow, had been savagely beaten and left for dead.

The next day, the Forsyth County sheriff arrested three young African Americans:  Rob Edwards, age 24; Oscar Daniel, age 18; and Ernest Knox, age 16.  Rob Edwards didn't stand a chance.  He was almost immediately lynched – killed without due process.

Image by B. McDowell
via FindAGrave
On 23 September 1912, Mae Crow – "one of the most beautiful girls in all of Forsyth" – died from her injuries.  When nightfall came after her funeral, "all hell broke loose in Forsyth County." Groups of white men on horseback – night riders – went into the African American community and told them to get out of the county, "or stay and die like Rob Edwards." The night riders used whatever means were necessary, including "posted notices, scrawled letters, rifles, torches, and sticks of dynamite."
By the end of October, the night riders had forced out all but a handful of the 1,098 members of the African American community – who left in their wake abandoned homes and schools, stores and livestock, and harvest-ready crops standing in the fields.
A contemporaneous Georgia newspaper article (19 October 1912 Savannah Tribune) stated this:
Trouble Brewing In Hill Country 
          Many Blacks Are Being Driven Away by Angry Whites…
Gainesville, Ga., October 13. – (Special) – Resulting from the recent reign of terror in Forsyth county, racial hostilities have broken out in northeast Georgia that threaten to become as serious as conditions during the period which followed the close of the civil war…
Gainesville is being invaded as a haven of refuge by hordes of Negroes from Forsyth and neighboring counties, who have been driven from their homes by indignant whites.  The Negro sections of the city have been flooded with safety-seeking Negroes, and scores of shanties and dwelling houses shelter as many as six or more families.
All roads entering Gainesville from the southeast are flanked by improvised camps, sheltering the fleeing blacks and many families are forced to live temporarily in the wagons in which the fled from their homes…
Anonymous letters have been sent almost every planter in the hill country, demanding the dismissal of all Negro laborers, and their ejection from the premises.  Most of these missives threaten arson and dynamiting of the houses in which the Negroes live as penalty for disobeyance [sic].  In many instances, mobs of whites appeared at the Negro homes on farms and openly demanded evacuation of the shacks and shanties…
And this from the west coast (5 November 1912 Riverside, California Independent Enterprise):
Driven Out by Whites Because of Recent Outrages
CUMMINGS, [sic] Ga., Nov. 4. – Because of recent outrages alleged to have been committed on white women by negroes in Forsyth county, many negroes have been driven out of that district, regardless of their standing, good, bad or indifferent…Hundreds have already gone and others are departing, among them many peaceable, hard-working blacks, some of whom own land.  Not only have the negroes been warned, but leading white farmers have been given notice that their houses and barns would be burned or dynamited if they did not get rid of their negro tenants and laborers…
Meanwhile, the two African American teenagers accused of killing Mae Crow had been taken to Atlanta for safekeeping.  Oscar Daniel and Ernest Knox were given a trial in Forsyth County – it lasted a single day.  The two were convicted and sentenced to hang.  Georgia law of the time stated executions were to be private events.  But this happened:

Augusta Chronicle (Georgia)
26 October 1912 [via GenealogyBank]
Three Thousand People Crowded the Hillsides, Back of Militia, at Cumming Yesterday…
Not Enough Negroes Left in That Part of Forsyth County to Arrange a Funeral – Gallows Yard Turned Into Open Space by Crowd of People.

Cumming, Ga., Oct. 25. -- After a mob of citizens burned a fence erected about the gallows, more than 2,000 persons witnessed the hanging today of Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniels, convicted negroes, on a charge of assaulting and causing the death of a white girl. Militia from Atlanta were on guard for the third time in six weeks to preserve order.

Special to The Chronicle.
Cumming, Ga., Oct. 25. – Amid the cheers of thousands of spectators, gathered about a hollow square, 200 yards from the gallows, Oscar Daniels and Ernest Knox, negroes, paid the death penalty here today for assaulting and causing the death of a young white woman near Cumming, in Forsyth County, September 8th, less than seven weeks ago.  They were convicted three weeks ago yesterday.
Militia Criticized.
The failure of the state militia at Cumming to enforce the state law providing the private executions was criticized by state officials today, who declared the hanging should have been delayed until another fence could have been erected in place of the one burned by the citizens just before the arrival of the troops…
The double trap was sprung by Sheriff W. W. Reid at 11:19 o'clock, and twenty minutes later the two bodies were cut down and placed in a single pine box to be buried by the county as criminal paupers this afternoon.  They will not be accorded a funeral by members of their own race, as there are practically no negroes left in Forsyth County, and the few remaining are afraid to venture out on such a mission…
Only…attendants, county officers, newspaper representatives, members of the dead girl's family and soldiers were permitted within the 200-yard area.  Two companies of Atlanta militiamen formed a dead-line and kept the thousands of morbidly curious – men, women and children – out of reach of the scaffold.  But they were satisfied to stand on the surrounding hillsides and view the spectacle from a distance.  Estimates of the crowd vary, but it is not exaggerating to state that no less than 3,000 persons assembled here – the first legal execution in Forsyth County in more than half a century…
Gallows Fence Burned.
Efforts of county officials to have the hangings conducted privately, as required by law, were futile.  Because of the smallness of the jail, which would not permit the erection of a gallows, within the structure, a wooden scaffold was constructed in a field a half mile from the courthouse.  This was surrounded by a fence fifteen feet high, forming an inclosure [sic] about thirty feet square.
About midnight a mob went to the site of the scaffold, tore down the high fence and made a monster bonfire of the lumber and timbers.  This morning only a heap of charred embers was left of what had been the fence.  The scaffold was not molested.
Ordinary H. V. Jones early this morning ordered the fence rebuilt, but when he undertook to secure lumber with which to rebuild it, not a dealer in town could be found who would sell the material…
A year after the executions, Forsyth County still maintained its all-white status.  An article in Georgia's Marietta Journal dated 24 October 1913 stated the following:
It may be that Hon. Henry L. Patterson [of Cumming], judge of the superior court of the Blue Ridge Circuit, will remove with his family to Marietta some time soon…
Judge Patterson, so it is said, is to leave Cumming because it is impossible to secure house servants since the negroes have all been run out of the county.  Last year the anti-negro crusaders banished the colored people from Forsyth as St. Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland.  There is not a negro left to remind the people that there is a continent of Africa…
National attention was gained again after nearly two more years passed:

Trenton Evening Times (New Jersey)
28 August 1915 [via GenealogyBank]
ATLANTA, Ga., Aug. 28. – As a result of trouble in Forsyth County and in the neighboring territory between whites and blacks, all negroes have been barred from entering the county.  This was brought out clearly by the experience of Hudson Moore, a prominent resident of Atlanta, who went to Cummings [sic] on legal business and took along with him a negro nurse and negro chauffeur.  While he was in the court house he heard a commotion outside, and hurrying out he found a crowd of several hundred gathered around the two negroes threatening them with dire vengeance if they did not leave the county at once.  Moore at once intervened, and after a talk with the crowd he took the two negroes in his automobile and hurried them out of the county, a distance of fifteen miles, and left them there while he returned to complete his business.
While more articles exist that could be cited, I imagine the newspapers stopped reporting at some point.

75 years later, a national renewed interest in the whiteness of Forsyth County, Georgia was born.  Two "Brotherhood" marches took place there in January 1987.  The first was stopped short of its goal due to such resistance (vile hatred) by the people of the county, as well as an underwhelming police presence.  The second, also known as the "Freedom" march, and even more prominent than the first, was a success (to the degree the marchers could say it was completed).  Among the leaders of the procession were famed Civil Rights activists such as Hosea Williams and Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr.

What even more people of my generation likely remember, however, was the visit to Forsyth County by Oprah Winfrey.  She took her young show there the month after the Brotherhood and Freedom marches.  The white nationalists and racists were on display for all the world to see.  And I would be surprised if any of them were around in the time of the death of young Mae Crow.

Patrick Phillips, the author of Blood at the Root: a Racial Cleansing in America, arrived at Cumming as a school-aged boy in the 1970s.  I dare say he was raised a bit differently than many (most?) of his fellow county residents.  In fact, his parents fought for awareness and change by marching on the side of Brotherhood and Freedom in 1987.

PBS News Hour spoke with Mr. Phillips in January 2017.  One thing he said stood out to me – "…sometimes the gains of one generation are given back in the next."

That same report shared this final fact:  "The population of Forsyth County, Georgia is less than 4% black.  In 2000, it was less than 1% black."

A few passages from the book I took note of and highlighted:

  • Southern trees bear strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. – Lewis Allan, 1937
  • In 1907, W. E. B. Du Bois had put into words what every "colored" person in Georgia knew from experience, which was that "the police system of the South was primarily designed to control slaves…And tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police."
  • But of all their methods, torches and kerosene worked best, since a fire created a blazing sign for all to see and left the victims with no place to ever come back to.
  • Having such a man in the White House emboldened white supremacists across the nation and particularly in the South, which [President Woodrow] Wilson had once called home.

Highly recommended.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Strange fruit was written by Abel Meeropol in 1937 as a poem.
Billie Holiday recorded it as a song in 1939