In Other Words

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleans­ing in Amer­ica by Patrick Phillips

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — James McGrath Mor­ris

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.

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