Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, by Patrick Phillips

History can take many different forms. There are the histories that, relying on existing primary and secondary sources, present in hopefully coherent fashion an account of past events that we already know about. The numerous biographies of Abraham Lincoln or histories of the Civil War or histories of battles in the Civil War or biographies of generals fall into this category. We all know what the Civil War was and when it took place, or at least we should. We ought to know why it happened. But I think the great majority of people haven't really read a history of the Civil War that explains in much detail what it involved, the military campaigns, the primary figures. I've got sitting on my bookshelf like some kind of beast on my back the seven volume history of the Civil War by the historian Allan Nevins. I've always vowed that when I retired I would undertake this massive work. I said the same thing about Proust.

A different kind of history recovers the details of events that for whatever reason have been shrouded in mystery or simply misunderstood or forgotten. One such event is the history of Forsyth County in North Georgia. Specifically, Forsyth County as a region where for many decades no black people have lived, primarily because long ago following a crime against a white person which a black person might or might not have committed all the black people in the county were driven out. I heard this story in my childhood. I never knew the facts: it was just a hazy myth about a past that I didn't think about much. Patrick Phillips, a historian at Drew University who spent part of his childhood and adolescence in Forsyth County, has undertaken to recover the details of its history, to correct the myths and uncover events that have a real bearing on the current state of race relations in the United States. His book is Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America (2016; Norton). 

In 1912 an 18-year-old white girl named Mae Crow was walking home late one night when she was attacked, severely beaten, and apparently raped. She died two weeks later. Townspeople immediately concluded that her attacker was a black man. Their logic: it had to be a black man. Only black men attack white women. After a limited investigation the local sheriff and others determined that two black boys, aged 16 and 18, had committed the crime, with the assistance of several relatives. They were arrested. The two boys were put on trial, found guilty, and a month later hanged in the backyard of a resident who lived in the middle of town--in an event attended by, according to Phillips, several thousand people. His account of the hanging is particularly gruesome not only because it involves the deaths of two teenage boys but also because of the fact that thousands of townspeople supposedly attended like it was a kind of picnic and public circus.

After the executions, nightriders (local white residents) used the threat of violence and mayhem to drive every African American from the county.  Homes, barns, and other property owned by black residents who had lived in the county all their lives were burned. One African American farmer lost a 200-acre plot of land, which local white residents eagerly bought at low prices.  None of the black residents of the county was able to recover possessions or land they lost as a result.  No fair compensation was provided.

The details of the rape and murder are not known. Law enforcement in 1912 in Forsyth County didn't keep records. We can only guess why the sheriff and others believed that these two boys committed the crimes. Whether they were guilty or not, they were railroaded. There were close connections between the defense attorneys and the prosecuting attorneys. There was some possibility of collusion between these two groups. A cousin of the two accused boys was arrested as an accomplice for the crimes.  She was convinced by the sheriff (apparently) that the only way she could escape jail or worse was to testify against them, so she did. In 1912 Forsyth County was an isolated place in the foothills of the Georgia mountains. It was a difficult trip from Forsyth County to Atlanta or back. Only 10% (1,098 citizens) of the population in Forsyth County at the time was African-American. There were many reasons why the story that the sheriff and other law enforcement officials told about the two accused boys didn't make sense. What is clear is that they were convenient perpetrators. Their arrest and conviction allowed the politically ambitious sheriff to show to the townspeople of Cummings in Forsyth County that he was doing his job and protecting white people, white women in particular, from the predations of vicious black men.

To read this book is to be constantly horrified and amazed.  Phillips points out that Cummings today has many memorials to Confederate generals and other prominent whites who lived there. There's no trace of the black people who once lived in the area or of the lynchings and of the public executions of young black teenage boys that occurred in 1912.

Phillips has rescued from the past a story that most citizens of Forsyth County and of Georgia in general would probably like to remain forgotten.  The year 1912 is more than a century in the past. The people of Forsyth County today can't be held responsible for events in which they had no part and played no role. However, it's important that events like the ones recounted in this book are remembered and not hidden in clouds of Chamber of Commerce optimism that focus on progress and a glowing public image.  Phillips links the events of 1912 to a march in Forsyth County in 1987 that attracted national attention and led to a confrontation between marchers and members of the Ku Klux Klan.

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