A book penned by an author who grew up in Forsyth County was released just Tuesday and has already garnered nationwide attention for its nonfiction recounting of the 1912 racial cleansing in Forsyth County that left the county without a single black resident well into the ’90s.
Night riders drove every non-white resident from their homes after the rape and beating death of an 18-year-old white woman, resulting in the lynching of three black suspects — the first on the Cumming square not three days after Mae Crow was found.
In his first work of nonfiction, “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America,” award-winning poet Patrick Phillips has appeared in newspapers and radio interviews across the country to discuss the story he never learned in school.
“Stories of savage racism and judicial burlesque were unremarkable in the Jim Crow South. What distinguished this case from most others was what happened in the aftermath: Almost every single one of Forsyth’s 1,098 African-Americans — prosperous, poor, literate and unlettered — was driven out of the county,” wrote Jennifer Senior for The New York Times.
“Sitting on the school bus in Forsyth County, I understood that for the kids around me, the color line was not drawn between rich and poor, not between white employers and black servants,” Phillips wrote in the book’s introduction, “but between all that was good and cherished and beloved and everything they thought evil, and dirty, and despised.”
The book, a blended narration of poetic lyricism and journalistic fact-based research, centers on the events of September 1912 but also spans the history of “racial terrorism” in the area, from the Cherokee removals in the 1830s to the 20,000-strong civil rights march through downtown Cumming in January 1987.
Reviews have come in largely focusing on the need to discuss this topic that has all but been pushed under the rug to many and the well-documented, intensive research of historical documents, interviews and footnoted public records.
“If history is written by the victorious, a hundred years after the expulsions the victorious white people of Forsyth have successfully written the racial cleansing completely out of mind,” Phillips wrote. “And where anyone familiar with the crimes of 1912 might expect to find signs of reflection, apology, even truth and reconciliation, there is only a deafening silence.”
Erin Lovett, publicist for Phillips at W.W. Norton & Company, said the response to the book, “so far, has been stupendous.”
It was named to the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence Longlist among 22 other nonfiction titles — in the nonfiction category, three titles will be named finalists in October, with the winner being announced at the RUSA Book and Media Awards Ceremony on Jan. 22.
Any perceived hype for the book can be visualized in people’s want to check it out from local libraries.
“Before it came out, it was up to 105 holds, and we purchased 23 copies [in hardcover],” said Linda Kelly, assistant director for materials for the Forsyth County Public Library system.
Four audiobook copies received 18 holds, Kelly said, noting people are “continuing to put holds on it.”
The library system also recently purchased an e-Book version, which is downloadable to one person at a time. Five reference copies are also available to use but not check out, with at least one at each branch.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever known of a nonfiction book that’s had this many holds,” Kelly said. “Of course, for best sellers like John Grisham … we buy 40 or more copies and the holds are in the hundreds. [But for nonfiction] this is unusual. But it’s also a local interest piece.”
Though the past may be marred with the unimaginable, Phillips said he can see the area has changed since he lived in Forsyth County.
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.
“Some are glad to hear it and learn more,” he said, “and also people say many times the past is the past and what’s the point in dredging it up again?”