Books

FYI Book Club: ‘Blood at the Root’ digs into a stranglehold of racism

The Kansas City Star

Going home is complicated for Patrick Phillips.

Stroll the square in Cumming, Ga., nestled in hill country some 40 miles north of Atlanta, and there is where he bought his first baseball glove. Where he and his family would go for lunch on Sundays after church.

There, too, is where a 24-year-old black man spuriously accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman was pulled from his jail cell by an angry mob and lynched a little more than a century ago.

A few blocks down Kelly Mill Road is the beautifully restored, white frame home that houses the local Chamber of Commerce. It once was owned by Ansel Strickland, a far-sighted physician and one of Cumming’s leading citizens in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The good doctor also provided the nearby grounds on which two black teens went to their deaths in 1912, hanged by a judge’s order after questionable convictions in the same rape and murder case that incited the lynching. The site lent perfect viewing for a festive crowd of 5,000 gathered for the executions.

“It was a little bit surreal to drive around,” Phillips says of recent trips back to Forsyth County and Cumming. “Everywhere I went, I saw signs of what happened there just over 100 years ago. And yet, I could look around and no one else had even the faintest inkling.”

For them, and for the rest of a country dealing with a new wave of racial tensions, Phillips has researched and written an uncomfortable history lesson. Forsyth County didn’t stop at three hangings as retaliation for a savage crime whose true perpetrator or perpetrators may well have escaped punishment. An enraged white citizenry waged a two-month campaign of terror in the wake of the murder of the 18-year-old girl, raiding homes and churches and “cleansing” the county of its 1,098 black residents. All were simply run out.

It was as if all the venom of the Jim Crow South had been distilled into this 247-square-mile patch of land — smaller than the smallest county in either Missouri or Kansas — on the west bank of the Chattahoochee River. No matter the passage of time. No matter the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Black faces dared not return to Forsyth County for generations, meeting harassment and intimidation if they so much as passed through and conceding the formation of what civil rights activist Hosea Williams called “a South Africa in the backyard of Atlanta.”

Astonishingly, it endured into the late 1980s.

Phillips, 46, lays out the saga and its origins in his new book, “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America.” The title comes from an opening line in the poem “Strange Fruit,” a metaphorical protest of American prejudice and violence that was written and published in 1937 and adapted to song — most famously performed by Billie Holliday:

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”

A decorated poet who teaches at Drew University in Madison, N.J., Patterson lived in Forsyth County with his parents, brother and sister from second grade through high school. His first non-poetry book is an exhaustive account of the virulent racism that became a part of its identity.

“I grew up there, and my sister and brother grew up there. As we got older and moved on and ended up in various places, sometimes we’d get together and remember some of this stuff,” he says. “When you’re a kid, you think things are normal. But you come to realize how messed up that place was.”

Of course, prejudice and images of angry white mobs, night-riders and extrajudicial hangings aren’t unique to the history of Forsyth County or even the South. More than 3,400 African-Americans were lynched in 37 states between 1882 and 1968, according to research by the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). That included 69 in Missouri and 19 in Kansas.

But resolving to keep an entire county all-white, and doing it for 75 years, is likely unique to Georgia and Forsyth.

“Blood at the Root” was more than a decade coming, going back to a night in 2004 when Phillips was sitting at a computer in the basement of the New York University library. Tired and needing a break from his doctoral work (he has a Ph.D. in renaissance literature), he flashed back to the stories he’d heard about the long-ago murder in Forsyth and the awful events that followed. He’d always wondered: What was fact? What was legend?

He typed in “Forsyth County,” “1912” and “murder.” On the screen appeared an old photo from The Atlanta Constitution showing three state militiamen — each white — standing guard over six mostly expressionless individuals. All six were black and allegedly connected to the murderous assault on pretty, popular Mae Crow.

A petite, neatly dressed woman, Jane Daniel, sat all the way to the left. Her husband, Rob Edwards, had been the lynching victim. Sitting beside her was her 16-year-old brother Oscar, one of the two accused youths who would go to trial and hang. The second doomed suspect, 18-year-old Ernest Knox, sat and stared into the camera at far right.

These were flesh-and-blood figures, not myth, and Phillips had to know more about them and what they and their people had gone through.

He had a small sense. Phillips’ parents were always outsiders in Forsyth County, progressives who’d moved in from Birmingham, Ala., built a lakeside home outside of Cumming and happened to find themselves surrounded by bigotry. They took part — with Phillips’ sister and 70-some others — in a protest against the county’s segregation that drew nationwide attention in 1987. An estimated 400 counter-protesters also showed up, hurling rocks, bottles and racial epithets.

Patrick was 16 at the time. He missed marching because he showed up at the Cumming square and the demonstration never made it that far, but the scene in town was telling enough. Men raised bullhorns and led chants of “white power.” Someone brandished a noose.

“There were a few people in Klan robes, but it was mostly the kind of guys I would have seen at Forsyth County High. They were just normal people,” Phillips remembers. “That was a real shocker, and I got the hell out of there.”

Only 39 African-Americans lived in the county as recently as 1997. But time, money and Atlanta’s encroachment finally brought change. Forsyth is now the fastest-growing county in Georgia and one of the fastest in America, its inexpensive property prices, strong job market and good school test scores attracting newcomers in waves.

The overall population has more than doubled in the past 15 years to an estimated 212,438 in 2015. The African-American population has risen 12-fold to a little more than 7,900. Suburban sprawl covers the onetime sites of racial violence and terror.

But progress is one thing. Disregarding the past is another. Phillips notes that there are no plaques, no markers, no reminders of any kind of Forsyth’s uncomfortable history. “What appalls me more than people saying racist things or wearing white sheets is the kind of communal amnesia about it,” he says.

“It’s hard not to shake your head at that when you sit across from someone who’s the granddaughter of a guy who used to own a farm there. I can drive past where it used to be. I know all about the family and what was taken away from them. And you don’t have to go that many generations back.”

Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.

Join the discussion

The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of reader’s services, will lead a discussion of “Blood at the Root” by Patrick Phillips from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 4 at the American Jazz Museum, 1616 E. 18 St. If you would like to attend, email Stover at kaitestover@kclibrary.org.

An excerpt

From Chapter 9 of “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America” by Patrick Phillips, published by W.W. Norton & Co.

“The Oliver family’s flight from Forsyth was similar to what hundreds of their neighbors endured, but unlike those who left no trace of the journey, Byrd Oliver used to tell his daughter Dorothy about it. ‘Every so often, he would sit on the doorstep and talk. … He could talk about it 15 or 20 years later,’ she said. ‘He would always sit with his chin in the palm of his hand and the tears would run down his sleeve. He has cried about it many a day.’ When Forsyth once again made national headlines in 1987, seventy-seven-year-old Dorothy Rucker Oliver recounted her father’s memories for the Gainesville Times.

 ‘My Dad saw everything’ in 1912, she said, referring to the arrests of (Ernest) Knox, (Oscar) Daniel, and (Ed) Collins, the burning of black homes and churches, and the ultimatums delivered in the night. ‘They knew everything that was going to happen … it doesn’t take bad news long to spread.’ Byrd Oliver told his daughter that many black families were forced to leave behind ‘drums of syrups, canned goods, family keepsakes, and most important, farmland.’ And when, as a child, Dorothy asked her father if he had really grown up in ‘all white’ Forsyth, Oliver told how his family banded together with other groups of refugees for safety, then set out across a landscape teeming with white mobs.”

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