In Other Words
Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips
In 1987, a peaceful march just outside Atlanta made front-page news, even after decades of civil rights protests in the South, because the marchers entered Georgia’s notorious Forsyth County. This rural spot, only 40 miles from Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace, had remained entirely white since 1912, when a campaign of terror had chased the last of its 1,098 black citizens from their farms and homes.
Teenaged Patrick Phillips went looking for his parents, who were among a few local whites marching in support of the activists. “I found myself shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other young men walking toward the county courthouse,” he writes. “Only when one of them held up a piece of rope tied into a thick noose did I realize that I was not at a peace rally but had somehow stumbled into the heart of the Ku Klux Klan’s victory celebration.”
Now, three decades later, a much older Phillips recounts his discovery of Forsyth County’s dark history in Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, which takes its title from the lyrics of “Strange Fruit,” a Lewis Allan poem made into a song by Billie Holiday. It is a compelling work that weaves the evocative tone of a memoir with, at times, a spellbinding historical narrative.
“I had entered a world where nobody liked outsiders,” writes Phillips of his childhood days, after his family moved from Atlanta to Forsyth. Riding the school bus, he noticed that the students often had the same last names as the roads. “The Pirkles got off at Pirkle Ferry, the Cains at Cain’s Cove.” It was on just such a ride that Phillips first heard the astonishing story he relates in his new book. “Long, long, long time ago, see, they’s this girl got raped and killed over yonder,” said one teenager. “And when they found her in the woods, y’know what they done?” Phillips didn’t reply and the boy, using a racial epithet, told him how the white folks had run all the black residents “clean out of Forsyth County.”
Phillips grew up to become an accomplished poet, translator, and professor far from Georgia. In 2003, he began to look at stories about Forsyth County on the internet. What he read drew him in. Eventually he set about learning all he could in hopes of reversing what he calls a “communal act of erasure.” More than a decade later, he has produced a book that seeks to accurately document the 1912 alleged rape of one white woman and the murder of a second; recount the subsequent mob lynching of one black man and the judicial execution of two other black men; narrate the nighttime acts of terror visited on black homes and churches; and report what happened to the black families who fled. “I wanted to honor the dead by leaving a fuller account of what they endured and all that they and their descendants lost.” Not surprisingly, the records are sparse, the newspaper accounts unreliable, and recorded remembrances rare. Phillips — a poet rather than a historian — makes the best he can of what he found. The circumstances and facts surrounding the two crimes are no clearer today then they were in 1912. But the author moves to more certain ground with his gruesome account of the events that followed. Angry whites took Rob Edwards, the first black suspect under arrest, from his jail cell — then beat him, shot him, and finally hung him in the town square. Two other black suspects in the second crime — Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel — were given a show trial and hung in public, this time with nooses provided by the government.
Rather than marking the end of white revenge, the three deaths signaled its beginning. Under the cover of darkness, whites set fire to black homes and churches with the announced plan of ridding the county of all its black citizens. When the reign of terror neared its goal, it took merely the symbolic act of laying a bundle of sticks suitable for a torch on the porch of a house to persuade its black inhabitants to abandon their home. “By late October, if you made such a thing and placed it outside the cabin of some last, proud black farmer, by sunup he and his whole family would be gone.”
By the mid 1920s, a decade after the expulsions, there were no signs that blacks had ever lived in Forsyth County. Their homes and churches were gone, their fields subsumed by those owned by white farmers. Even the gravestones in black cemeteries were dug up and repurposed as flagstones in walkways. A collective amnesia-like silence descended on the county. In the 1950s, it was one of the only places in the South with no “white only” signs in diners or motels, or “colored” and “white” placards above drinking fountains. As an island of whiteness, there was no need for such things. The civil rights movement bypassed the county. “Even as the nation changed around it,” Phillips writes, “Forsyth’s old, unspoken rules remained, and each new generation of enforcers clung to the code their parents and grandparents had handed down.”
Blood at the Root lifts the veil of silence — what one might even deem a cover-up by Forsyth County residents — regarding the shameful act that led to 75 years of apartheid in the shadow of Atlanta. The stories contained here, as well as grisly photographs and racist language, make for hard reading. But
Blood at the Root is an important book that reminds us how easily hatred, bigotry, and fear can become a deadly force in a nation that prides itself on the rule of law.