For book club, ‘Blood at the Root’ a sickening slice of American history

“Blood at the Root” by Patrick Phillips is a true crime story of how Forsyth County, Ga., came to expel all African-Americans for most of the 20th century.
“Blood at the Root” by Patrick Phillips is a true crime story of how Forsyth County, Ga., came to expel all African-Americans for most of the 20th century.

Some books are both easy and hard to read.

“Blood at the Root” by Patrick Phillips, the most recent selection of the FYI Book Club, is one of those, according to readers who gathered at the American Jazz Museum to discuss this emotional history.

“It was gut-wrenching,” said Jackie Kimble of Independence. “I couldn’t put it down, but I was shaking my head the entire time I was reading. It was visceral.”

David Grant Gray of Prairie Village agreed. “It helped that the book was so well written. It was riveting.”

On the surface, this book is a true-crime story set in 1912 Cumming, Ga., where Phillips grew up. A young woman disappears during a walk to a relative’s home. Hours later townsfolk find her battered and bloody, and scarcely breathing. She dies two weeks later.

It is what happens next that makes this book a crime-against-humanity story. Three young black men are taken into custody, without evidence or legal authorization, and eventually hanged. And every African-American resident of Forsyth County is driven out. No blacks lived there until after 1987’s Brotherhood March there, led by civil rights leader Hosea Williams. Phillips attended.

“Blood at the Root” is Phillips’ story of how and why one tiny county in Georgia became a whites-only enclave well into the 20th century.

“I read it as history and was horrified by most of it,” said Judith Reagan of Kansas City. “Some of what happened in Forsyth County happened while I was alive,” she said, referring to the protest.

“But there’s portions of it still going on today,” noted Walter S. Johnson of Kansas City.

One of the readers attended that 1987 protest. Former Kansas State Attorney General Bob Stephan, who lives in Overland Park, brought the rock that was thrown at his head while he was marching.

Attendees listened quietly as Stephan spoke. “I still get emotional when I think about it. The KKK was there. The National Guard was there. It was unbelievable, all the rage. This book brought back that memory because Phillips portrayed it very well. The Wichita Eagle said it wasn’t my business to be there. It’s everybody’s business. And I’d like to find the guy who threw this rock and give it back.”

Angela Hagenbach, a noted jazz singer who lives in Parkville, pointed out, “This wasn’t only a black experience. Phillips may be writing as an observer, but he’s recounting with great accuracy what happened, how that county remained all white. For him to write about this period in Forsyth County history adds more weight. It’s part of his history, too. I’m glad he had the bravery to write such a gripping tale.”

Nedra Dixon, another noted Kansas City singer, said she didn’t think about Phillips’ race while reading. “Truth transcends color,” she said. “The man is stating truth, and we must take the truth and go forward.”

Phillips himself dropped into the discussion via Skype to take questions from readers.

“Have you received any hate mail?” asked one. Phillips chuckled and said, “I’ve received a fair amount of hate mail, and email makes it easy for folks to share their opinions. Just today I received a five-page hate letter that was copied to my entire department, the deans and administration at my college” (Drew University, where he teaches).

Johnson wanted to know why the murderer was never revealed in the book. Phillips said, “There was too much of a code of silence in the town and not enough, if any, documentation to draw a conclusion. The book lays out evidence that these three men didn’t commit this crime, but I couldn’t prove who did. I think the name of the killer went to the grave with some of the residents.”

Sam Zeff of Overland Park asked about the credibility of the newspaper accounts at the time. Phillips replied, “The reporters would write that men came unmasked but wouldn’t print the names. This tragedy was an open secret for an entire generation, but once they died off, it became a secret. Many who might have answers are gone. It’s why Mae’s killer was never found. The town wanted this incident to go away.”

Karen Poe of Lenexa suggested readers visit the Joseph Hirsch painting “Lynch Family” on display in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “The painting immediately came to mind while I was reading the book,” she said. “It’s terrifying and heartbreaking and captures what some of the residents of Forsyth must have been experiencing.”

Toward the end of the discussion, Gray mused, “Forsyth must not have been a comfortable place to live, no matter who you were.”

Kaite Mediatore Stover is the Kansas City Public Library’s director of reader’s services.

Join the club

The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email Look in FYI on Oct. 29 for the introduction to the next selection, “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” by Bryn Greenwood of Lawrence.