In the summer of 1915, NAACP secretary Royal Freeman Nash traveled to the Appalachian foothills north of Atlanta to investigate reports of a wholesale exodus of black residents from Forsyth County. “A negro would receive an anonymous letter giving him twenty-four, thirty-six hours, occasionally ten days to quit the county . . . and that meant precipitate flight and abandonment of everything owned in the world,” Nash wrote. “Failure to vacate on the date set meant a stealthy visit in the night and either dynamite or torch.” This campaign of arson and terror by white “night riders” was so successful that a local newspaper editor from a neighboring county claimed, “A gentleman from Forsyth County, who was here last week, said every Negro who lived in it was gone. Not a single one is left to tell the tale.”
Patrick Phillips’s “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America’’ tells this story of how, after three young black laborers were accused of raping and murdering a young white woman, a Georgia community purged all of its black residents. For Phillips, whose family moved there in 1977 when he was in elementary school, this is also a deeply personal mission. “Having lived my entire life in the wake of Forsyth’s racial cleansing,” he writes, “I wanted to begin reversing its communal act of erasure by learning as much as I could about the lost people and places of black Forsyth.’’ Deeply researched and crisply written, “Blood at the Root’’ is an impressive and timely case study of the racial violence and historical amnesia that characterize much of American history.
Phillips, a poet and professor, is a gifted storyteller, and it is the accumulation of details that make this story so powerful and disturbing. Phillips describes how Ernest Knox, one of the three young black men charged with the rape and murder of Mae Crow, confessed to the crime during a “mock lynching,” a ruse in which a mob was marshaled to pressure suspects. It was a credible threat as Knox “knew that a white man could do anything he pleased to a poor black teenager — particularly one who stood accused of attacking a white girl.” Knox survived the incident, but he and 18-year-old Oscar Daniel were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging. Phillips notes that the man who built the scaffold consulted a “table of drops” to calculate the appropriate length of the rope. Since Knox and Daniels were adolescents, “the charts would have recommended a nine- to-ten foot drop — a height normally reserved for hanging women.” Seated at the base of the gallows was the victim’s family, and as late at the 1980s a piece of the hanging rope could be found in the county courthouse, tucked between the pages of superior court minutes from 1912.
“Blood at the Root’’ makes clear that the campaign of white terror also had significant financial repercussions. Joseph Kellogg, a former slave who by 1910 was the county’s largest black property owner, was forced to sell his 200-acre farm at a price well below the market rate. Facing death threats, other black landowners made the same choice or just walked away from their property. Phillips describes how poor whites profited, either by buying land at fire sale prices or by registering claims on abandoned plots with the country clerk. Looking at Forsyth County today, Phillips notes, “[w]hat was once stolen with a wink and a nod . . . has now become some of the most valuable real estate in all of metropolitan Atlanta.”
The book’s later chapters detail how the county returned to national attention when civil rights stalwart Hosea Williams led two Brotherhood Marches through the area in 1987. Williams’s demands included reparations for those whose land had been seized, investigations into violations of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and increases in the employment of blacks in law enforcement. Georgia Governor Joe Frank Harris appointed a biracial committee to respond, but white members rejected all of the activists’s demands, insisting they had “no apologies to make to anyone” and blaming descendants of expelled families for “perpetuat[ing] divisive and contrived issues.” After disbanding the panel, Harris said, “There are other Forsyth counties . . . all around the USA. This is not just a Georgia problem. It’s a problem that exists wherever people are.” While Harris was trying to deflect attention from his home state, it is true that Forsyth’s history is of a piece with organized racial violence against African Americans in Tulsa, Chicago, and Detroit, and many other American cities and towns. By recalling the events in Georgia, “Blood at the Root’’ contributes to the urgent national task of reckoning with histories that too many would prefer to forget.
BLOOD AT THE ROOT:
A Racial Cleansing in America
By Patrick Phillips
Norton, 302 pp., illustrated, $26.95
Matthew Delmont is a professor of history at Arizona State University and the author of three books, including “Making Roots: A Nation Captivated’’ and “Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation.’’ You can reach him on Twitter at @mattdelmont