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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips held particular interest for me as it takes place in Forsyth County, Georgia. While I grew up next door in Fulton Country, my home was, in fact, on the county line, and my life straddled these two counties. I remember being horrified to discover how racist so many were in the area in which I grew up, and now that I am older, and this is now my work, I am not surprised, but rather thankful that I have been able to examine my own biases to be a better teacher and researcher. However, Forsyth cannot escape it's bloody and horrifying past.

In 1912, the murder of a young woman rocked Forsyth county, an area in rural Georgia north of Atlanta that until this saw few crimes and a quiet life for the residents, be they White or Black. No one in present day would say that the Black residents had it good, but overall, everyone existed together as much as they could for the post-slavery South. Until, that is, Mae Crow's death at the hands of an assailant. Immediately a group of men determined that this must have been at the hands of a vicious Black man, and a mob set out to right the wrongs of this young woman. Her death was exaggerated to the millionth degree, and several Black men lost their lives in the process. One was viciously lynched while the others were hung in a public spectacle after a farce of a trial. After this, the mob of Forsyth residents ran out every single black resident they could find from the county in the least heard of racial cleansing in American history.

The county stayed that way until very recently. You may recall one of Oprah's first episodes, when she came to town in 1987 and interviewed the residents there. I recall seeing the show -- I'm confident it was much later, some retroactive revisiting of the episode -- but I remember being horrified by what I heard. And it came from my neck of the woods. 1987 was also the time of the Peace March through Forsyth County that was anything but. To this day, as of the 2010 census, Forsyth remains 85% White. That's astounding.

I say that with an asterisk, of course. It's only astounding if you aren't from there. I grew up on the county line, and I knew very well that people of color were not welcome in Forsyth County. It's not blatant, it's just a written rule. I never questioned it, but then again, I lived just over the line in the next county. The older I got, the clearer it became, and the more my family spoke of it. I can attest to all of these facts about the segregation of the South. I lived it, even in the beginning of the present century.

Phillips has written an astounding piece of work that covers the racial cleansing in clear, minute detail that at times is quite painful to read. The fear that the residents must have felt, worried that their own kin would be lynched at a moment's notice simply at the drop of a White man's fancy is just simply too much for me to wrap my head around. Having to abandon all you have worked for simply because others tell you that you must or you will be killed -- my heart aches simply at the thought. House help couldn't even stay to work for families they had been with for generations. Men who worked to own their own land through toil and sweat had to sell for pennies on the dollar or risk their family's lives. This is more than unfair, this is egregious and must be rectified. However, the county doesn't feel as though it owes the decedents of its refugees anything for their trouble. How disgusting.

The worst part of all of this is that another murder occurred just weeks later in a close location to Mae's -- with a similar modus operandi. This murder, however, was covered up and ignored because if, god forbid, anyone realized that the Black men accused might not be the murderers, how would the residents of Forsyth justify their racial cleansing? 

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