This is the second part of a series about "Oscarville: Below the Surface." Click here to read the first part of the series and learn more about the production, cast and crew working on the television show.
Bob Mackey grew up in Jackson County hearing stories and local legends about what lies waiting below the surface of Lake Sidney Lanier.
He remembers being told to never go too far into the water, but looking back, he had no idea why his family and friends were so scared of the lake. Each summer, there were often reports of drownings or other incidents, but for him, it felt like there was something he was missing.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that he learned about Oscarville, a majority Black town that used to reside in northeast Forsyth County on a portion of the land that now makes up the bottom of the lake. Before the lake was built, much of the community was driven out of the county by white residents.
“Growing up in Georgia, we never heard about all of this history,” Mackey said.
With recent calls for movies and productions about Lake Lanier, Mackey felt more of the story should be told so that others growing up in Georgia and across the country can learn more about this nearly-forgotten town.
That was why he partnered with Mad Scientist Productions to create “Oscarville: Below the Surface,” a fictional television show about the town that ties in local history to show more about the lives of families who used to live there before the building of Lake Lanier.
Mackey is executive producer and co-director of the series.
Premiering on Feb. 5, he said he hopes the show helps to pique viewers’ interest of the town’s history and starts a conversation around how communities across the U.S. can continue to grow and improve.
“It’s not revenge on anyone,” Mackey said. “No one is here to hurt anyone. The truth just needs to be told and taught so we all can get along and become one source of love. Everything that happened is really for us to learn from. And as you see the series of ‘Oscarville,’ how you walk out is based on how much you paid attention to what was happening.
“But you should walk out feeling like …. Wow, I didn’t know, but now I know. What can I do to be a better person and not carry on this hate that may or may not have been represented?”
The first season of the show, which will be eight episodes, is set during the 1940s and ‘50s around when the lake was built, and events from 1912 are tied into this setting.
If the show continues, Mackey said they hope to move forward in time, covering more of Oscarville’s impact on the community and Forsyth County’s difficult history with race.
To really understand this history, he said it’s also important for people to understand exactly what Oscarville was.
‘Strong Black community’
Many remember Oscarville simply as a rural area that was later taken up as land to make room for Lake Lanier. But many years before that time, it was a bustling Black community.
Just before 1912, there were nearly 1,100 Black residents in Forsyth County — with 58 of those residents being landowners mostly in Oscarville. According to the Digital Library of Georgia, 109 Black residents paid the farm tax, meaning they rented or owned farms. Other Black residents worked in Cumming as craftsmen or other laborers.
There seemed to be a true feeling of community in the town, which quickly became known for their churches. Pastors such as Grant Smith and Levi Greenlee Jr., were “spiritual leaders and outspoken advocates for Black residents,” according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
Not only did they help to protect the community, but they worked to bring Black residents together. Surviving records from Greenlee’s church show they organized picnics for churchgoers and collected tithes from many in the community, including some white residents in Cumming.
A local newspaper archived by the Georgia Newspaper Project showed that Oscarville was a “strong Black community” where many children also heavily attended local schools. A 1908 Georgia schools census shows that 316 children of color were enrolled in school in the county.
But at the time, some white residents in Forsyth saw this community as a sort of threat.
One white subscriber wrote a letter to the local paper, expressing a fear that the children attending school might eventually be able to pass the state’s literacy tests for voting that were created to keep Black residents away from the polls.
And by the end of 1912, two incidents in the county led to the complete abandonment and destruction of what was a successful Black community.
In September of that year, two assaults against white women were reported in the county. The first alleged assault took place on Sept. 5, when a woman reported that two Black men had assaulted her in Cumming.
By Sept. 7, Sheriff William Reid had arrested the two men and four “accomplices,” according to the Digital Library of Georgia.
Just days later, the body of 18-year-old Sleety Mae Crow, a white resident, was found in the woods just east of Cumming. Several Black residents were named as suspects for the alleged rape and murder, including Ernest Knox and Robert Edwards.
In an effort to provide safety, Knox was transferred to a jail in Atlanta while the remaining suspects stayed at the jail in Cumming. Despite Knox being transferred, a mob of angry white residents gathered outside of the jail that night.
The mob seized Edwards, a 24-year-old farmhand, from the jail, beating him to death before he was hanged from a telephone pole in the town square.
This instance started a wave of violence directed toward the Black community in Forsyth County. Mobs came through Oscarville, threatening residents and firing guns into homes.
“Night riders,” white residents who came through the town at night on horseback, also burned down homes and threw explosives into nearby buildings, according to archived reporting by the Gainesville News and Dahlonega Nugget.
While many residents did not agree with the mob’s actions, the violence continued until nearly all the county’s Black population was forced to flee.
According to “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America,” a book written by Patrick Phillips and published in 2016, the county’s Black residents fled in all directions, but the majority made their way to Hall County.
Almost suddenly, Oscarville was abandoned, the churches and pillars of their community burnt to the ground. The residents who used to live there were forced to start over, securing jobs and opening businesses where they could in Gainesville.
And those who owned land in Oscarville no longer felt safe coming back to claim what was theirs.
What lies beneath Lake Lanier
Moving forward nearly 40 years, the land that once made up Oscarville in Forsyth County was still mostly abandoned as the Black population in the county remained low.
Some say when it came to building Lake Lanier in the 1950s, the area was specifically chosen to cover up the town to silently remove the history from the area. Other rumors even suggest that residents were purposefully drowned, or land was forcefully taken from Black residents at the time.
Robert David Coughlin, the author of “Storybook Site: The Early History and Construction of Buford Dam” and a former park ranger on the lake, said the construction of Buford was originally planned in Roswell. It was later moved to Forsyth County because the area was more rural at the time.
Through the process of preparing for Lake Lanier, the U.S. government acquired the rights to more than 56,000 acres of land in Forsyth, Hall and Dawson counties to make room for the 38,000-acre lake and more than 700 miles of shoreline.
This included several small towns, most of which consisted of farmland.
And the acquisition of much of the land did not go smoothly. Coughlin said many families in north Georgia held their land close to their heart as it had been passed down from generation to generation.
Some refused to leave their land despite generous payments offered by the government, and at least one resident had to be physically removed by force.
These removals did not seem to be targeted toward Black landowners at the time.
Records suggest that Black residents did, however, lose the land they once owned in Oscarville after they were driven out of the county after 1912.
According to Elliot Jaspin, a historian and journalist, only about 24 of the nearly 40 Black landowners in Forsyth County at the time were able to sell their land. The other properties have no record of sale, and some believe that the abandoned land was simply taken by white residents.
‘In the hearts of many’
For many, this murky history behind Lake Lanier and Oscarville leaves behind many questions, especially considering Forsyth’s history with racial tensions.
Some speculate that alleged hauntings near Browns Bridge and frequent drownings could be associated with the deaths of the Black residents who once lived in the town that now resides under the surface of the lake.
But Mackey said it is important to remember what really happened to these residents and share their stories and lives.
“It is no alligator underneath the water, I can say that,” Mackey said. “There is something there, but it’s really the truth.”
He hopes to reveal at least some of this truth in “Oscarville: Below the Surface.” While he believes some things are best laid to rest, he and each crew and cast member on the show believe this story could help bring people together.
“It’s just to educate people,” Mackey said. “There’s a lot of myths out there and a lot of false information, and we want to provide a level of due diligence across the board for everybody. It’s a love to share this story. I’m a storyteller, and this has been a passion to tell this.”
Many of the cast and crew members agree that this is an important story to tell, getting involved with the project mostly out of a want to help bring the story of Oscarville to life.
Corey “Leek the Legend,” co-director and producer on the show, didn’t know anything about Oscarville before Mackey reached out to him. Diving into the history of Forsyth County, he realized how huge of a story this could be for many in the community.
He said he has worked day and night for this project to help ensure that they truly do the town and those who once lived there justice.
“A land of myth finally gets its flowers,” Leek said. “This story gets a face now.”
Looking back at this history, Mackey said Forsyth, Hall and Jackson counties have all come a long way. They are not the counties they once were.
But at the same time, he said everyone needs to recognize that the community still has a long way to go to help better society.
“All the work that was done, we don’t want it to go anywhere,” Mackey said. “We want to build off of that, and I think we do that by knowing about the work that was done.
“Things are changing. Oscarville is in the hearts of many, and we want to make sure everyone knows how important Oscarville is and was to the state of Georgia.”
Mackey said he and the crew are currently working independently, but they hope to partner with a television network or streaming service soon to host the first season of the show.
For more information and updates, visit www.oscarvilletheseries.com or follow the Facebook page, Oscarville The Television Series.