A Story of Racial Cleansing in America
Why did the forced removal of African Americans seem so plausible in Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912? Was it because it had all happened before?
Below is an excerpt from Blood at the Root, by the poet Patrick Phillips. The story begins in September of 1912, in the days after two assaults on white women. Ellen Grice claimed she was attacked by two black men who left before she was hurt. The next day Mae Crow, a 19-year-old white woman, was discovered injured and unconscious in the woods. She allegedly regained consciousness for long enough to accuse a 16-year-old black youth, Ernest Knox. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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Journalists only started writing about the expulsions once the wagon trains of refugees grew too large and too numerous to ignore.
Though it would take weeks before reports reached Atlanta, in the days after the attack on Crow a nighttime ritual began to unfold, as each evening at dusk groups of white men gathered at the crossroads of the county. They came with satchels of brass bullets, shotgun shells, and stoppered glass bottles of kerosene, and sticks of “Red Cross” dynamite poked out through the tops of their saddlebags. When darkness fell, the night riders set out with one goal: to stoke the terror created by the lynching of Edwards and use it to drive black people out of Forsyth County for good.
In 1907, W. E. B. Du Bois had put into words what every “colored” person in Georgia knew from experience, which was that “the police system of the South was primarily designed to control slaves. . . . And tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police.” In the first decade of the twentieth century, the days when all white men had been legally empowered to pursue and arrest fugitive slaves were only fifty years in the past, and the fathers and grandfathers of many locals would have been part of such posses in the days of slavery.
So it must have seemed natural to many whites when, each night around sundown, a knock came at the door and the adult men of the family were summoned to join a group heading out toward the clusters of black cabins scattered around Forsyth—along the Chattahoochee out in Oscarville, in the shadow of Sawnee Mountain north of Cumming, and south, toward Shakerag and Big Creek. It would take months—and, in a handful of cases, years—before the in-town blacks of Cumming were finally forced out, since many lived under the protection of rich white men, in whose kitchens and dining rooms they served. Instead, it was to the homes of cotton pickers, sharecroppers, and small landowners that the night riders went first, and it was these most vulnerable families who fled in the first waves of the exodus.
Written traces of the raids are few and far between and consist mostly of vague reports of “lawlessness” after dark. Since journalists only started writing about the expulsions once the wagon trains of refugees grew too large and too numerous to ignore, it is hard to say precisely what took place on those first nights of the terror. Some of the attacks later made headlines in Atlanta (“Negroes Flee from Forsyth,” “Enraged White People Are Driving Blacks from County”), and it’s likely that similar raids had been happening since the discovery of Mae Crow’s body in early September. The night riders fired shots into front doors, threw rocks through windows, and hollered warnings that it was time for black families to “get.” But of all their methods, torches and kerosene worked best, since a fire created a blazing sign for all to see and left the victims no place to ever come back to. In mid-October, the Augusta Chronicle reported that “a score or more of homes have been burned during the past few weeks . . . and five negro churches.”
The arsonists must have been terrifying wherever they struck, but for Forsyth’s poor black farmers, the burning of churches was a true catastrophe, striking not just at the community’s spiritual home but at what Du Bois called “the social centre of Negro life.” In 1903, sitting in his Atlanta University office, just forty miles south, he had described Georgia’s rural black congregations as “the most characteristic expression of African character” in the entire community. “Take a typical church,” Du Bois wrote.
[It is] finished in Georgia pine, with a carpet, a small organ, and benches. This building is the central club-house of a community of Negroes. Various organizations meet here—the church proper, the Sunday-school, two or three insurance societies, women’s societies, secret societies, and mass meetings of various kinds. Entertainments, suppers, and lectures are held. . . . Considerable sums of money are collected and expended here, employment is found for the idle, strangers are introduced, news is disseminated and charity distributed. At the same time this social, intellectual, and economic centre is a religious centre of great power. Depravity, Sin, Redemption, Heaven, Hell, and Damnation are preached twice a Sunday after the crops are laid by.
The erasure of such places from the map of Forsyth was complete. Today, all that’s left are a few scant details about the dates on which churches were founded, lot numbers for the land on which they stood, and the names of a handful of ministers and worshippers who once gathered there. Backband Church, out near Oscarville, was where Buck and Catie Daniel sat on Sunday mornings—surrounded by their sons Cicero and Harley, their daughter Jane, and their youngest boy, Oscar—listening to the sermons of a local farmer and preacher named Byrd Oliver. Stoney Point, down in Big Creek, was where on some Sunday in August of 1912 Harriet and Morgan Strickland took their visiting nephew, Toney Howell, to meet the congregation and be welcomed into his aunt and uncle’s church. Shiloh Baptist, founded by Reverend Levi Greenlee Sr., lay just outside of town on Kelly Mill Road and was home to many of Cumming’s maids, cooks, servants, and butlers.
Faint traces of other black churches are tucked away in handwritten ledgers at the state archives at Morrow; in the collections at the University of Georgia in Athens; even in the basement of the Forsyth courthouse, where a cardboard box atop a metal filing cabinet still holds deeds for the land on which black residents once founded Mt. Fair, Shakerag, and Stoney Point—about which nothing is known but names and approximate locations. All that can be said for certain is that, again and again in the fall of 1912, white men sloshed gasoline and kerosene onto the benches and wooden floors of such rooms, then backed out into the dark, tossing lit matches as they went. All over the county, beneath the ground on which black churches stood, the soil is rich with ashes.
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Mae became an object of fascination during her sickness.
In their race to outdo one another, and to further sensationalize the story, journalists had been reporting Mae Crow’s death almost from the moment she was discovered in the woods. “GIRL MURDERED BY NEGRO AT CUMMING” the front page of the Augusta Chronicle had blared on September 9th, in an article that informed readers that “the negro’s victim died at her home near Cumming tonight.” The Macon Telegraph went further, claiming that when Ernest Knox attacked Crow, he “beat her into unconsciousness and then threw her over [a] cliff.” Once a single false report of Crow’s death appeared in print, other editors felt compelled to follow suit, and a typical article in the Constitution closed by informing readers of the sad fact that “although every effort was made to save her life, [Crow] died late Monday afternoon.” By the beginning of October, interest in the story had grown so intense that the Georgian upped the ante, writing that Cumming was in an uproar over “the death of two white women at the hands of negroes.”
Meanwhile, Ellen Grice was alive and well out in Big Creek, no doubt busy with the work of running a household and a small farm with her husband, John, and keeping a low profile after all the trouble her allegations had stirred up. Mae Crow lay in her bed in Oscarville, watched and prayed over by her parents, Bud and Azzie, but still very much alive. In the first few days after she was found, Dr. John Hockenhull even told reporters “she will likely recover.”
For many locals, Mae became an object of fascination during her sickness, and at least two men were so desperate to get a glimpse of the beautiful, bedridden girl that they made a drunken pilgrimage. According to Azzie Crow, “when our darling daughter was living here at the point of death . . . one Sunday Wheeler Hill and another man came up to our house intoxicated.” Hill and his friend, Crow said,
wanted to see what the negroes had done . . . They hung around awhile, and before we knew it, they had gone to the back of the house . . . then pushed open the door and climbed up and were in the room where our precious daughter lay.
As much as they were offended by Hill’s intrusion, Bud and Azzie made it clear in a letter to the North Georgian that they were not opposed to the raids being waged in their daughter’s name and were as anxious as everyone else to be rid of “those fiends of hell, negroes.”
As September waned and as the first cold breezes rippled across the Chattahoochee, Mae grew weaker from her injuries, despite everything the doctors of the county had tried, and despite her mother’s prayers. At some point during the second week of her coma, Dr. George Brice told Bud and Azzie that their daughter had contracted pneumonia. On September 23rd, 1912—two weeks to the day from when she was first found in the woods—Mae Crow died.
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All the legs on the tables, chairs, and bed had been shot off.
Mae’s funeral was held at Pleasant Grove Church, a short walk from the house where she grew up, and in the center of a whole community of Crows. According to her schoolmate Ruth Jordan, the sight of Mae’s coffin being lowered into the ground was almost more than the white people of Oscarville could bear. “After she was buried it seemed like all hell broke loose,” Jordan recalled. Soon “the night was filled with gunfire [and] burning cabins and churches,” and the Jordans could hear whites “shooting at any black they could find.”
George Jordan and his wife, Mattie, were poor sharecroppers, like most other whites in Oscarville, but all her life Ruth had heard the story of how, when her mother’s mother died at a young age, “a black woman that lived nearby . . . became a mother-figure [to Mattie], teaching her to cook, keep house, and care for the younger children.” And so, as they listened to the crack of gunshots and smelled the smoke of distant fires, George and Mattie Jordan feared for their black neighbors.
At first light, George Jordan walked toward Garrett Cook’s place. “Pa went to check on them,” Ruth Jordan said, and he found that their house “had been shot so full of holes that all the legs on the tables, chairs, and bed had been shot off.” When George called out, Garrett and Josie Cook finally emerged, having spent the night hiding in the woods:At one point, Ruth’s father went out to check on an African American couple named Garrett and Josie Cook, who owned twenty-seven acres not far from the land George Jordan was working as a sharecropper. George told his wife that he was going out “to get news of the goings on,” but with gangs of night riders on the move, Forsyth had become dangerous even for a forty-four-year-old white farmer like Jordan. As he “walked down the road that night,” Ruth remembered, “he was drawn on by a group of armed white men [and] it scared him so bad he came home.”
Pa told this man to go back to his farm so the two of them could defend it against anyone that tried to take it from him. . . . The man replied, “George, that would just get us both killed,” and he left Forsyth County forever.
For days afterward, the Jordans could hear the sounds of the night riders each evening at dusk, and this went on “every night,” Ruth Jordan said, “until no colored was left.” Asked whether her father was ever challenged by locals for having tried to help his black neighbors, Jordan answered that to her knowledge “the subject was never again brought up by any of the whites involved.”
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Certain men would go to a black person’s home with sticks tied up in a little bundle [and] leave ’em at the door.
Isabella Harris , the eight-year-old daughter of Cumming mayor Charlie Harris, also remembered that September as a terrifying time, particularly once she learned that the night riders were not “mountaineers” from outside the county but gangs of ordinary white men, well known to all.
Such mobs may have been on the other side of Du Bois’s “color line,” but they were far from strangers to the black people they terrorized in the weeks after Mae Crow’s death. When black residents like Garrett and Josie Cook woke to the sound of a rock smashing through a window or the jangle of bridles outside their door, the order to leave was usually delivered by men whose voices they had heard many times before: employers and landowners for whom they had plowed and picked cotton; merchants with whom they had traded; and white neighbors they had lived and worked with for years.
And whereas in early September, men from the church picnic had been bold enough to try to stand up to the white men pursuing Grant Smith, after the lynching, and in the wake of Mae Crow’s death, it didn’t take much to “run off” the few black residents still in the county. Joel Whitt, a local white man who was twenty-three in 1912, said that in the beginning, the night riders used gunfire and torches, just as Ruth Jordan remembered. But later, Whitt recalled, “Certain men would go to a black person’s home with sticks tied up in a little bundle [and] leave ’em at the door.” By late October, if you made such a thing and placed it outside the cabin of some last, proud black farmer, by sunup he and his whole family would be gone.
Even as refugees flooded into neighboring counties, many residents bristled at criticism of Forsyth and offered a simple explanation for the “lawlessness” that was making headlines all over the state. A “violent element” had come from outside, they told reporters, and “but very few residents . . . participate in the demonstrations.” Asked about the makeup of the lynch party that had dragged Rob Edwards out of the county jail, one Cumming man claimed that “the members of the mob live in the hill country” north of Forsyth and came “from adjoining counties and the mountains.”
During the century that followed, generations of whites have continued to blame Forsyth’s recurring episodes of racial violence on “outsiders,” like when, in 1987, County Commissioner David Gilbert claimed that the men who’d attacked African American peace marchers were all from outside the county—despite the fact that seven of the eight men arrested had Forsyth addresses. “The real thing that upsets me,” Gilbert told reporters, “is that this whole thing was sprung by outsiders. It’s just a bunch of outsiders trying to start trouble in Forsyth County.”
The further one gets from 1912, the more frequently whites have tried to deflect attention away from the county’s long history of bigotry by pointing to a specific group: the Ku Klux Klan. It’s easy to understand the appeal of such an argument, since it exonerates the ordinary “people of the county” from wrongdoing during the expulsions and implies that they themselves were the victims of an invasion by hooded, cross-burning white supremacists. The only trouble is that in the America of 1912, there was no such thing as the KKK.
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The ‘modern’ version of the Klan came to life not in the woods and fields of the rural South but in Hollywood.
When people hear of that group today, the organization that comes to mind is actually the second incarnation of the Klan—the first having been stamped out in 1871 after the passage of the “Ku Klux Klan Act,” which enabled victims of racial violence to sue in federal court and gave President Ulysses S. Grant the right to suspend habeas corpus in pursuit of racial terrorists. Empowered by Congress to suppress Klan activity during Reconstruction, the U.S. Justice Department arrested and convicted many of the group’s earliest, most violent members. As a result, the Klan’s first grand wizard, former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, was already calling for the organization to disband in the early 1870s, and by 1872 federal prosecutions had rendered the original KKK all but defunct.
For more than forty years after those original prosecutions, there was no Ku Klux Klan as we now know it. And when it was reborn, the “modern” version of the Klan came to life not in the woods and fields of the rural South but in Hollywood, where in 1915 D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation portrayed costumed “white knights” as the defenders of white womanhood and the saviors of an idealized antebellum world. Griffith found inspiration for his night riders not only in the Reconstruction-era “Ku Kluxers,” but also in the romances of Sir Walter Scott, whose heroic highlanders burned crosses to summon their fellow clansmen to battle.
Griffith’s groundbreaking motion picture, based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s play The Clansman, was pure fantasy, but millions of white moviegoers saw it as “history written with lighting,” as President Woodrow Wilson was famously—and apocryphally—said to have remarked when the film was screened at the White House. As Birth of a Nation took the country by storm, life began to imitate art, and when it opened at the Fox Theater in Atlanta in 1915, the streets around the movie house filled with men dressed up in sheets and pointy hoods, many riding horses draped in white cloth, like the heroes of the film. Once inside, moviegoers were mesmerized by a story of chaste white women being stalked by savage black rapists. The Birth of a Nation lit up movie houses with the most vivid fantasy of southern whites: a black rebellion, which in Griffith’s telling was both political and sexual. As the film’s mulatto villain Silas Lynch tells one of his white victims, gesturing out the window at rampaging black soldiers, “See! My people fill the streets. With them I will build a Black Empire and you as a Queen will sit by my side!”
But given that in 1912 Griffith’s film, and the birth of the second-wave Klan, still lay three years in the future, it is simply impossible that the black people of Forsyth were “run out” by gangs of white-sheeted Ku Kluxers. Groups of mounted men did appear out of the darkness and terrorize black families in 1912, but they were not robed “white knights,” and they did not wear pointy white hoods. Instead, Forsyth’s gangs of night riders were farmers and field hands, blacksmiths and store clerks, and, in all likelihood, even a few elected officials like Bill Reid. The whites of Forsyth didn’t need klaverns, kleagles, and fiery crosses to organize a lynching in the fall of 1912. All it took back then, as Ruth Jordan said, was “people of the county.”
If the mobs were not made up of masked Klansmen, just well-known local men “with their horrible faces,” it is natural to wonder how those ordinary people first coalesced into gangs of night riders. How, that is, did a bunch of farmers decide to set fire to churches led by respected men like Levi Greenlee Jr. and Byrd Oliver, and to train the beads of their shotguns on the houses of peaceful landowners like Joseph and Eliza Kellogg? How did they summon the nerve to threaten the cooks and maids of even the wealthiest, most powerful whites in Cumming? Given that it required an organized effort, kept up not just over months but years, and given just how much will it took to sustain the racial ban for generations—from what source did all that energy come, and in what epic drama did these people think they were at last taking part?
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The white people of Forsyth knew in their bones that such a thing was possible.
The land now known as Forsyth County, Georgia, was once home to Cherokee people, who had lived there for centuries when James Oglethorpe and the first Georgia colonists arrived from England in 1733. As whites settlers pushed farther and farther west during the late eighteenth century, the line separating native land from United States territory was redrawn again and again, as one treaty after another was broken. By the early nineteenth century, the native people of Georgia were confined to an area in the northwest corner of the state known as the Cherokee Territory, which included present-day Forsyth.
The federal government had long sought to “civilize” the Cherokee, and in the first decades of the 1800s the native people of north Georgia were still hoping to live in peace with their new white neighbors. Around 1809, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah began developing the first written alphabet for his people’s language, and by the 1820s the Cherokee settlements in northwestern Georgia included Cherokee-built schoolhouses, Cherokee-owned sawmills and blacksmith shops, and vibrant cultural institutions like a tribal newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. Hollywood may have filled white imaginations with visions of Indians living in tepees and hunting with bows and arrows, but by the late 1820s many Cherokee people in the Georgia foothills had lived alongside their white neighbors for years and were part of a racially diverse and increasingly integrated frontier community.
When gold was discovered at Dahlonega in 1828, however, it created a renewed push into the Cherokee Territory. Benjamin Parks, said to have found the very first gold nugget while out deer hunting, told the Atlanta Constitution that “once news got abroad” that there was gold in the Georgia hills,
there was such excitement as you never saw. It seemed within a few days as if the whole world must have heard of it, for men came from every state. . . . They came afoot, on horseback and in wagons, acting more like crazy men than anything else.
Even as they tried to tolerate all these encroachments into the Territory, the Cherokee were disenfranchised in the courts, and they had no legal recourse even when whites stole from them in broad daylight. As the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix put it in 1829,
Our [white] neighbors who regard no law, or pay no respect to the laws of humanity, are now reaping a plentiful harvest by the law of Georgia, which declares that no Indian shall be a party in any court created by the laws or constitution of that state. These neighbors come over the line [between Georgia and the Territory], and take the cattle belonging to the Cherokees. The Cherokees go in pursuit of their property, but all that they can effect is, to see their cattle snugly kept in the lots of these robbers. We are an abused people. [Even] if we can receive no redress, we can feel deeply the injustice done to our rights.
White prospectors soon moved from rustling cattle to stealing whole Cherokee farms—emboldened by the fact that bogus claims could receive an official stamp of approval from state land agents. After the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Georgia officials began planning for the future of the Cherokee Territory, anticipating a day when government troops would force all native people west of the Mississippi. In 1832, two land lotteries were held to redistribute former Cherokee lands to Georgia’s white settlers.
In theory, those who drew land lots were allowed to take possession only if the property was unoccupied, but in reality, countless whites interpreted their winning tickets as a license to drive off Cherokee residents, including many who owned prosperous farms. In May of 1833, the editors of the Phoenix told how
an industrious Indian had by his steady habits improved his premises to be of considerable value, when it was drawn by one of the lottery gamblers in Georgia. The fortunate holder of the ticket applied to the governor for a [land] grant, which was given him on his assurance that there was no Indian occupant on it. The fortunate drawer . . . loaded his pistols, entered the possession of Ootawlunsta, pointing one [pistol] at him, and drove the innocent Cherokee from his well-cultivated field. . . . The Cherokee are doomed to suffer.
With such white “pioneers” growing more and more bold, and with Georgia officials unwilling to comply with two separate Supreme Court decisions upholding the Cherokee people’s rights as a sovereign nation, the stage was set for the Treaty of New Echota. Signed in 1835 by a small faction of the Cherokee—and against the wishes of Chief John Ross—the treaty ceded the entire Cherokee Territory to the United States, in exchange for reservation land in Oklahoma. In the wake of New Echota, starting in the spring of 1838, the Cherokee people of north Georgia were rounded up by state militiamen and confined in makeshift pens, where they waited to start the forced march west. One of the largest Cherokee removal forts, Fort Campbell, was located in present-day Forsyth.
It was at Fort Campbell that Cumming mayor Charlie Harris’s grandfather Aaron Smith served under General Winfield Scott, commander of the Cherokee removals, in a unit known as the Georgia Guard. The guardsmen were notoriously cruel. Among them were many men who had come to north Georgia in search of gold and many who expected to personally profit from the removal of the Cherokee.
Charlie Harris grew up hearing tales of how his grandfather had once driven Cherokee families from their homes at gunpoint. According to Harris’s son David, Aaron Smith and other state militiamen spent the fall of 1838 deep in the pine forests of Forsyth, hunting down the last of the Cherokee holdouts. Smith was ordered to “search out . . . the pitiful and old Indians hiding and starving in the woods . . . who would not go willingly to the concentration camps for removal.” John G. Burnett, an army private who also served during the Cherokee removals, said that in 1838 he witnessed “the execution of the most brutal order in the History of American Warfare. . . . I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the West. The trail of the exiles was a trail of death.”
In 1839, when the last of north Georgia’s Cherokee people set out on the eight-hundred-mile march to Oklahoma, the newly depopulated area of the Cherokee Territory was overrun by white land speculators, gold prospectors, lawyers, and farmers, who had either won their forty-acre lots in the 1832 land lottery or bought winning tickets from others.
This is the real origin story of Forsyth. While descendants of the county’s oldest families have long celebrated their “pioneer” ancestors, the truth is that early white settlers pushed relentlessly into the Cherokee Territory over the objections of tribal leaders and the U.S. Supreme Court—and found the land “empty” only after military troops rounded up sixteen thousand native people, imprisoned them in removal forts, and then drove the Cherokee out of Georgia like a herd of livestock.
When a new kind of “race trouble” broke out in 1912, Forsyth was a place that had already witnessed the rapid expulsion of an entire people, and many residents, like Charlie Harris, had heard firsthand accounts from relatives who’d taken part in the Cherokee removals. So whenever someone first suggested that blacks in the county should not only be punished for the murder of Mae Crow but driven out of the county forever, the white people of Forsyth knew in their bones that such a thing was possible. After all, many families owed their land and their livelihoods to exactly such a racial cleansing in the 1830s.
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Reprinted from Blood at the Root by Patrick Phillips. Copyright © 2016 by Patrick Phillips. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.