FORSYTH COUNTY -- Patrick Phillips heard of the racial cleansing that occurred in Forsyth County in 1912 that was sparked by the rape and beating death of a white woman and lynching of an untried black suspect on the Cumming square, but not from his history books in school.
He heard of the night riders who shot into homes, burned churches, hurled rocks through windows as myths and legends. The kinds of stories kids tell.
Of how in the weeks following Mae Crow’s death, every one of Forsyth’s black residents were driven out of the county – which remained “all white” well into the ‘90s.
“I had heard that story my whole life,” Phillips said.
His family moved to Forsyth from Sandy Springs when he was 7. His parents are from Birmingham. He said he still calls the South home, even though he now lives in New York and works as an award-winning poet.
The author of “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America,” his first work of non-fiction, said he never forgot about those stories and wanted to find out what really happened.
In September 1912, three black laborers were accused of raping and murdering the young white girl from a prominent family in town. One was lynched by a mob on the Cumming square. A month later, crowds cheered as the other two teens were hanged with questionable guilt.
When the book is released on Sept. 20, readers will find a forgotten past of “racial terrorism” that set up generations of bigotry and violence.
They will find a sheriff who drove the events through a belief in “racial purity” before later going on to found a local chapter of the KKK.
“When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, African Americans were still routinely threatened and attacked in Forsyth for nothing more than stepping onto the wrong side of the county line,” Phillips told W. W. Norton & Company Inc., the book’s publisher.
Though the book, written through his combined use of poetic lyricism and journalistic fact-based research, focuses heavily on the events of September 1912, Phillips spans the history of the Cherokee removals in the 1830s to the 20,000-strong civil rights march through downtown Cumming in January 1987.
“Where the march happened," he said, "I was in the Cumming square trying to find my family and wandered into the middle of the Klan rally."
The “work of persons unknown”
Phillips, who played little league for the Cumming Cougars and went to Cumming Elementary School for grades 2-6 and whose family attended Otwell Middle and Forsyth County High schools, talked to descendants of white night riders, of Mae Crow and of black residents who were chased out of their homes forever.
He researched courthouse documents, digital collections, Ancestry.com and old editions of the Forsyth County News.
He talked to Don Shadburn, a local historian who passed away last year.
“I was told growing up it was all the work of the KKK. They were a pretty visible presence in Forsyth in the ‘70s, but I was shocked to realize that there was no version of the Klan like that in 1912,” Phillips said. “I had to throw out the old version I had of who was responsible for this … that it was just the people of the county.
“There will be people from old families who don’t want to hear that, but that was one of the most surprising things.”
He said he also began the project thinking – as he had been told growing up – the “people forced out were poor sharecroppers who didn’t really own much and were marginal. There were people in that category, but there were also community leaders.”
Someone who owned a church. Merchants. School teachers. A farmer who owned 200 acres of his own land.
“They were not strangers to the people who did the violence,” Phillips said.
Two aspects of the events in 1912 set Forsyth apart from others like it in Georgia.
In Hall County, Phillips said, people were arrested after being suspected of shooting into the cabins of black farmers. Their names were published on the front page of the paper. They were tried and sometimes convicted.
“Wealthy men in Gainesville actually said they would spend money to stop [the violence],” he said. “It was the opposite in Forsyth.”
Documents say the violence was the “work of persons unknown.” Phillips said he was unable to find record of any arrest of any person for forcibly driving out the more than 1,000 people from their homes.
“To a very unusual degree, they succeeded. The county line was really defined as white only, and it still was when I was there,” he said. “There was a desire to paint what happened in ’87 as this unusual outbreak of violence by a small number of people. But it had happened chronically, and that racial ban had been enforced for decades.”
There were plenty of people in Forsyth County opposed to the violence and to the ban, he said, but there was a “general acceptance of it that lasted from 1912, certainly to the 1990s.”
“I wanted to honor the people”
While history arguably should be told simply for posterity, Phillips said that was not the only reason he wrote “Blood at the Root.”
“It was important in a moral sense to tell the story because I wanted to honor the people. I was astonished at the heroism and the endurance of the black community, and I was amazed I had grown up and not known about it,” he said.
He said he also thinks reckoning with a brutal past “might be one of the ways to face it as a nation,” which he thinks includes for “America to take seriously the notion of a federal reparations committee. It’s about specific land loss and specific cases.”
Those conversations, though they may be “volatile and will stir emotions among people in Forsyth” are beginning to happen, he said.
And change is visible in Forsyth.
“Some are glad to hear it and learn more … and also people say many times the past is the past and what’s the point in dredging it up again,” he said. “I don’t buy into it, and amnesia in even well-meaning people in the county is really problematic when you’re among the people who are still in the county who did not have this injustice done to your family and your ancestors.”
He said he visited Forsyth often during his research for the book and was “amazed to see how the place has changed and how prosperous it is.”
But that also means the stakes are high because land that was “lost has grown in value as the decades have passed.”
The spot on Bethelview Road at Ga. 400 where his parents marched in ’87 used to be pastures. Now there’s a Starbucks.
Forsyth used to be all white. Now the county is almost 4 percent black, 10 percent Asian and 10 percent Hispanic, according to 2015 census data.
“On the one hand I can see with my eyes how the place has changed radically,” Phillips said, “but some of the same denial is still there.”