Heavy and dark from Friday’s rain, visitors took the soil collected from near the spot near where Rob Edwards was hanged from a metal bucket and placed it in the jars, one to be sent to a museum in Alabama, another to remain in Forsyth County.
In September 1912, Edwards, a black man, was stripped nude, beat and killed in his jail cell by a mob of at least 2,000 white residents after being arrested the day before in connection with the alleged rape and murder of Sleety Mae Crow, a white Forsyth County resident. After his death, Edwards’ body was dragged through downtown Cumming and hung from a telephone pole.
Along with a similar incident days before in which another white woman was allegedly attacked by two black men, the end result was the county’s black population, with an estimated 1,100 residents in 1910, according to Census records, were forced out of the county. Two other black men, Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel, who was arrested at the same time as Edwards, were found guilty for the crime and executed by hanging.
Due to the time that has passed, it may never come to light what exactly happened in those incidents, but no arrests were made in Edwards’ extrajudicial killing, one of an estimated 450 lynching victims in Georgia between 1882 and 1930.
On Friday, more than a century after Edwards’ killing, members of the Community Remembrance Project of Forsyth County, the Historical Society of Forsyth County and the Equal Justice Initiative came together to remember Edwards and collect two jars of soil with his name and date of death – one that will stay in Forsyth and one that will go to EJI’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama – from outside the Forsyth County Administration Building, near the site where Edwards’ body was hanged.
“By collecting soil where his body was hung, we hope to create a tangible memory for the life that was taken and the community that was terrorized,” said Jolie Creuser, with the remembrance project.
Creuser, a DeKalb County native, said she had lived in the county for more than 30 years and knew the county’s reputation as a community marked by racial strife but didn’t know the history behind it. After learning about Edwards’ killing and the expulsion of the black community, she said she was “not going to stand for being one of the ones who thinks it’s OK just to pretend this didn’t happen.”
“I knew the reputation, but I didn’t know the history because we don’t talk about it, we don’t teach it in our schools and we have so many residents who think, ‘Well, don’t talk about it, it’s going to just cause trouble,’ so we don’t,” she said. “But think of what a different community we’d have if we’d been talking about it all these years. These discussions that cause conflict sometimes, I think it’s a symptom of that silence, and I don’t think silence is the answer, and we can do better.”
About 40 attendees showed up in the rain on Friday to help fill the jars with soil and hear remarks from local historians, leaders, teachers and pastors, including Rev. Keith Oglesby, formerly of Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, who said that people have the ability “to do great harm, especially when led by people with bad motives.”
“What we’re doing here today is another way of remembering that we can do great harm, but like the story of Jesus, there’s also redemption,” he said. “There’s not just the bad, but there are also good people here that want to do good things all across this county, so being part of that is really important; doing this as a remembrance is important.”
Oglesby said the event was meant to remember history and “not to dwell on our past in some way that’s morbid or guilt-ridden, but to help us live better today.”
“We’ve got to remember a horrible crime, what happened to Mae Crow, which was awful. Never forget the victim, the original victim,” Oglesby said, “but the response in the community was equally awful, that a man was lynched, that others were executed with questionable evidence, then what happened afterwards and those who were violently expelled.”
EJI’s community remembrance project seeks to recognize victims of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites, erecting historical markers and has plans for a national memorial to racial injustice.
“At EJI, we really value these community remembrance projects because we couldn’t do this work without you all here in the community willing to do this work when difficult things happen,” said Breana Lamkin, with the organization.
Local organizers said they would like to see a historical marker placed near the area of Edwards’ lynching.
A common theme among both speakers and the crowd was the event was not meant to cast blame on anyone or to reopen old wounds, but to acknowledge what had happened and move forward.
“Our experience of getting to this point is not about shame, it’s about honesty,” said Will Hart, with the remembrance project. “Humans are not perfect. We make mistakes, some out of ignorance, some out of greed, more out of distrust and most out of fear. In psychiatry, when we study the brain, we know there is a program in the brain to mistrust the other, the one who is not like us, and we have to overcome that. Fortunately, we have another part of the brain that has an executive function that can do that, but so often our first response is suspicion and fear.”
Daniel Blackman, who previously ran for Congress in Forsyth, said he was “part of that community of people of color that have always been told about the bad things in this county and the negatives of 1987 and 1912” and said the event was important for moving on from those attitudes.
“This is a part of healing,” Blackman said. “There’s a quote that if you stick a knife in me nine inches and pull it out six, that’s not healing. If you pull the knife completely out, that’s not healing. Healing begins when you pull the knife out, clean the wound and put a bandage on it so the wound can heal. This county has not had a chance to heal until today.
“We’ve had a lot of great conversations, we have a lot of good people. The stigma that everyone in this county is bad or can’t get along is one that I would like to end today and begin with a new opportunity for us to heal and to remember but also to reconcile.”
Among those who attended were brothers Larry Strickland and Leroy Grogan, whose grandmother Rosalee Strickland, whose maiden name was Brown, was among the black families who were forced out of the area after Edwards’ lynching.
Strickland said the day was a chance “to bring it up and everybody hash it out and think about what they went through back then and that we’re not going through it now. It’s a better day.”
“I think it’s very nice for people to get together and not be overzealous and thinking bad,” Strickland said. It’s a bad thing that happened, but today makes it a good thing, people coming together to make the bad be good, changing things, people get along better. It’s a religious thing. Like God said, we’ve got to love each other like He loves us, and that’s the only way we can make it.”