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A Story of Racial Cleansing in America

Patrick Phillips | W. W. Norton & Company | November 21, 2016 | 4,588 words

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?

Posted inBooks, Featured, Nonfiction, Story

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?
Detail from a map of Cherokee territory over time. The green line designates their territory at the point of their forced removal. Red towns were Cherokee towns. Via University of Texas Libraries.

Patrick Phillips | Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America| W. W. Norton & Company | September 2016 | 17 minutes (4,588 words)

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.

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