‘Blood at the Root’ ex­am­ines 1912 racial tur­moil

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FEATURES - By Don Schanche Jr.

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleans­ing in Amer­ica (W.W. Nor­ton & Co.), by Pa­trick Phillips

In 1912, the black res­i­dents of Forsyth County, Ge­or­gia, were driven from their homes by vi­o­lence and threats of vi­o­lence from their white neigh­bors. More than 1,000 peo­ple fled the county, leav­ing it vir­tu­ally all white for the next seven decades. This un­will­ing ex­o­dus forms the ba­sis for “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleans­ing in Amer­ica” by Pa­trick Phillips.

Raised in Forsyth County, now a sub­ur­ban bed­room com­mu­nity about 40 miles north­east of At­lanta, the au­thor heard his child­hood ac­quain­tances tell tales of the 1912 ex­pul­sions that sounded al­most myth­i­cal. But as an adult, a pub­lished poet and a univer­sity pro­fes­sor, he felt com­pelled to take a closer look. The sto­ries of hu­man suf­fer­ing that he re­veals in this grip­ping and metic­u­lously doc­u­mented ac­count make the hor­ror of those boy­hood sto­ries seem pale by com­par­i­son.

Like many episodes of South­ern racial vi­o­lence dur­ing that era, it be­gan with an at­tack on a white woman.

In a rural vil­lage called Os­carville, 18-year-old Mae Crow was found beaten, blood­ied and un­con­scious, and her in­juries proved fa­tal. Ru­mors cir­cu­lated, fill­ing in imag­ined de­tails, and sus­pi­cion soon fell on three young black men.

One of them, 24-year-old Rob Ed­wards, was quickly lynched.

“When a ru­mor spread that ‘Big Rob’ had con­fessed to the crime, a group of white farm­ers stormed the county jail and, ac­cord­ing to one wit­ness, shot Ed­wards as he cow­ered in his cell, then bashed in his skull with crow­bars,” Phillips writes. “Oth­ers say Ed­wards emerged alive, plead­ing for mercy, and died while be­ing dragged from the back of a wagon, a noose cinched tight around his neck.”

One of the other two sus­pects was also re­ported to have con­fessed — a con­fes­sion Phillips says was al­most cer­tainly ex­tracted via tor­ture. As Phillips re­ports, the two were later tried and hanged in a huge public spec­ta­cle, wit­nessed by thou­sands, but not be­fore wide­spread ter­ror­ism was in­flicted on the lo­cal black com­mu­nity.

“Some of the at­tacks later made head­lines in At­lanta,” Phillips writes, “and it’s likely that sim­i­lar raids had been hap­pen­ing since the dis­cov­ery of Mae Crow’s body in early Septem­ber. The night rid­ers fired shots into front doors, threw rocks through win­dows and hollered warn­ings that it was time for black fam­i­lies to ‘get.’ But of all their meth­ods, torches and kerosene worked best, since a fire cre­ated a blaz­ing sign for all to see and left the vic­tims no place to ever come back to.”

While many lo­cal blacks were poor share­crop­pers,

some had man­aged to ac­quire houses and land in the few gen­er­a­tions since slav­ery. Af­ter they fled in fear, their va­cant prop­erty was later qui­etly ap­pro­pri­ated by whites.

“To­day,” Phillips notes, “many of those same lots are home not to chicken houses, cow pas­tures, and hog pens but sub­ur­ban hous­ing de­vel­op­ments, filled with mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar homes. What was once stolen with a wink and a nod at the county court­house has now be­come some of the most valu­able real es­tate in all of metropoli­tan At­lanta ...”

For all but the lo­cals and the dis­placed, the vi­o­lence quickly re­ceded from mem­ory. Not un­til the late 1980s, when civil rights marchers from At­lanta de­scended on Forsyth County to protest its all-white sta­tus and faced a jeer­ing, Con­fed­er­ate flag-waving crowd, did the world take note of the county’s pe­cu­liar his­tory — which dif­fered only by de­grees from the racial vi­o­lence that erupted for decades through­out the South.

A study re­leased in 2015 by the Mont­gomery, Alabama-based Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive doc­u­mented 4,075 racial ter­ror lynch­ings in 12 South­ern states be­tween the end of Re­con­struc­tion in 1877 and 1950.

It was typ­i­cal, in those cases, for a coro­ner’s jury to rule the vic­tim died “at the hands of par­ties un­known.”

In the case in Forsyth County, Phillips re­minds read­ers of a mas­sive crime — and names at least some of the killers.

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