One would have thought award-winning poet Patrick Phillips had gone out of his league when he determined to write a historical account of the 1912 expulsion from Forsyth County of every black man, woman and child.
With more than 30 pages of notes in the back of his book to authenticate years of painstaking research and visits to northeast Georgia to talk with descendants of those who had been “run out,” Phillips produced “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America.”
A New York Times review of the book called it a “moral force.”
“The subject is too urgent, the characters too memorable,” the NYT reviewer wrote. “Some were depraved showboating politicians. But others were remarkable men and women, who were violently uprooted. At least (in Phillips’ book), they begin to get their due.”
If you go
What: Book discussion and signing with Patrick Phillips, author of “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America”
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Grace Episcopal Church, 422 Brenau Ave., Gainesville
Phillips, who comes from a well-to-do white family, first heard of the 1912 purge when he was 7 years old, riding in a school bus with his second-grade classmates in Forsyth County. His parents had moved there from the north side of Atlanta.
The thought of more than 1,000 African-Americans being run out of town was deeply engraved in his mind, the writer told The Times this week, ahead of his visit to Gainesville on Saturday to discuss and sign copies of his book.
“They said it happened after a white woman was supposedly raped and murdered,” Phillips said. “So I heard that version of the story from the time I was a little kid, and I was led to believe that was all there was. And there was no way to know anymore about it. I thought about that pretty much my whole life, and then I started getting more serious about writing about it 10 years ago when I began looking at newspaper databases.”
The 47-year-old Phillips stepped out of his comfort zone — having garnered great reviews for his poetry collections, including “Elegy for a Broken Machine” in 2015, a finalist for the National Book Award — to write “Blood at the Root.”
Phillips said he has traveled the country to discuss his book, including a presentation in Forsyth County that he described as “intense.” The writer said all he’s had to do is read online comments at the bottom of news accounts related to his book to see that race issues remain raw on all sides.
The writer can expect to see a more welcoming audience when he makes his presentation at an event hosted by Grace Episcopal Church and its rector, Father Stuart Higginbotham.
The event organizer, Gainesville City Councilwoman Barbara Brooks, also is getting local support from the Educational Foundation of Beulah Rucker Inc, and its executive director, Greer Rucker Peters, along with the Fair Street High School Alumni Association and its president Thomas Haily
Phillips reached out to Brooks, who is active with the Gainesville-Hall County Black History Society, to help him find descendants of African-Americans who fled Forsyth County.
“Barbara just welcomed me, a total stranger, writing to her and asking about this,” he said. “She welcomed me with open arms and offered to put me in contact with some of the people she had heard had ancestors who had come out of Forsyth County.”
Among the descendants Phillips spoke with were brothers George and Rheumar (Rudy) Rucker. They are great-great-grandsons of Byrd Oliver, a minister who led a black congregation in Forsyth County.
Oliver fled Forsyth and found refuge in Gainesville, where he married Beulah Rucker. They later founded the Industrial School, and their life and times are recorded in the Beulah Rucker Museum in Gainesville.
“As these refugees fled the violence and arson and church burning and lynching, Gainesville was one of the beacons of hope,” Phillips said. “The black community of Gainesville took in a lot of these families.”