In 1912, three black men were accused of raping and murdering a white teenage girl named Mae Crow in Forsyth County. One of the men, Rob Edwards, was lynched, and the other two, Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel, were hanged after a one-day trial. The townspeople then drove all 1,098 black residents out of the county, seizing their land and burning their churches along the way.
Although lynchings and attempts at expunging black citizens were common during this time period, Forsyth’s so-called racial cleansing remained in place until the 1990s. Poet Patrick Phillips was raised in Forsyth County in the 1970s and 1980s and remembers the county’s 1987 “brotherhood march,” when civil rights activists led by Hosea Williams encountered a large group of Klansmen and white protesters, along with a phalanx of police and National Guardsmen. The march turned into a white power rally that made national news, even drawing Oprah in to film an episode during one of the earliest years of her show.
“I grew up in Forsyth, and when I was a kid I had always wanted to find a book that told the story behind the legend [of what happened in 1912],” says Phillips. “But I realized if I wanted the truth about some of this stuff, I had to go look for it.” A decade ago, Phillips set out to chronicle Forsyth’s history of racism, and the resulting historical nonfiction book, Blood at the Root, was released in late September. Phillips spoke to us about his research, the local response to the book, and its relevance.
Why write this story now?
The poet Natasha Tretheway is a friend of mine, and she really issued a challenge to me. We had a conversation where she said, “Why have you not written about this? You need to tell this story.” I look like the perpetrators of slavery and Jim Crow—that’s the face I have and voice I have. I think I spent a lot of my adult life trying to do no harm and give no offense. But it meant I was on the sidelines of [issues] I deeply supported but didn’t have a role in. To be silent is really not justifiable. It was a combination of Natasha giving me persmisson to write the book and an obligation that the story be told, that those photographs be seen. I wanted the victims of this to have their stories remembered. I don’t know if that solves anything, but I don’t think we can get reconciliation without some truth-telling and that has to happen at local level.
What shocked you the most during your research?
The biggest shock to me was when I learned about Ernest Knox’s confession in 1912. The book was really a process of putting pressure on every single myth and legend. It’s complicated because the myths and legends are part of the story, but full of distortions and erasures. Part of that legend was that people were provoked after this wave of rapes, and Ernest Knox confessed. But he did so after a local white man had lured him to a well and was going to throw him into well with noose on his neck. This wouldn’t be regarded as [admissible] confession today.
The one other shocker was when I went back and read the biracial committee report after [the events of] 1987. Six African Americans and six Cumming civic and business leaders worked together for 10 months to figure out what happened, and they issued two separate reports to the governor—one white and one black. When I read the white report, I just couldn’t believe it. In their view, a majority of black people who left in 1912 “voluntarily relocated.” That’s how delusional it was.
Do you see any parallels between the story and current race relations in America?
When I started the book, it was before Ferguson, before Eric Garner, before all of these things that made headlines. I was sort of astonished as the subject matter became more relevant. The guy who was lynched in 1912 was Rob Edwards, whose nickname was Big Rob. And Mike Brown was Big Mike. Eric Garner was big guy. These were large men, physically large, tall men, and that’s exactly what happened in 1912. There’s some type of continuum that anecdotally exists from 1912 to now. Only a fool would suggest he has figured out race in America. A lot of people think because Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat: okay, thank god, we’re over race. [But] you have to keep securing those gains.
With this current presidential campaign, you have people who aren’t just resitant but are offended by those who want to tell truth about what happened in the 20th century to black Americans. [It’s shocking] how defensive and guarded a lot of white people are about this. But when I interviewed a lot of black descendant families, it was amazing how ready they were to forgive, how ready many of them were to communicate and connect and talk.
The Forsyth County of today looks very different than the Forsyth County of the 1980s or 1990s. What changed?
One day of singing “We Shall Overcome” and marching in 1987 didn’t suddenly change the hearts and minds in Forsyth. The old racial ban just died a natural death, and eventually the old guard were out numbered. Forsyth was not monolithic. People who dissented had to keep quiet. When Oprah Winfrey came down in 1987, she said, “There are a lot of white people in this community who are afraid, too.” As a kid, people told racist jokes, but I learned to keep quiet because you put yourself at risk.
How have people in Georgia and Forsyth specifically responded to this book?
When I’ve spoken in Atlanta, a lot of people from the county have come up to me to tell some of their stories. Right now I’m hearing from people who are happy about the book. But when the book was excerpted in the AJC, there was another response: “Why is he dredging up this ancient history? Leave it alone.” Like if you just leave it alone, it would all get better. But that’s dangerous wishful thinking. Still, I have to say I think of Forsyth as home; it’s where I grew up. I wrote this because of a fascination with its history. I didn’t write it with any ill-will.
How difficult was it to write a narrative researched from newspapers and public records?
I spent a very long time researching before I wrote a word. I started looking at newspapers a decade ago. I used Ancestry.com to locate descendants. I don’t think I could’ve written this 20 years ago, [before everything became digitized]. The narrative part wasn’t that hard because I’ve always written narrative poems. But everything I say in the book I wanted to back up with a source. I was probably excessively meticulous with the 35 pages of notes in the back. Because I grew up in the county, I had heard all of this denied my whole life, so I didn’t want anyone to claim it was poetic license or a novelist taking liberties.
Was it a challenge to tell this story fairly, considering there were very few records of black voices from the time?
Forsyth county was a backwater with very marginalized people. The African American community was not exclusively poor sharecroppers, but a majority were poor field hands or sharecroppers. Many left an “X” beside their names on poll tax records—if even that. I was aware that it was going to be extremely challenging, and that the archive was inherently biased toward the white point of view. A lot of it was old-fashioned hustle. I became really obsessive about finding every scrap. There’s a letter from Ruth Jordan, who was a schoolmate of Mae Crow, and at the end she writes, “It weren’t the klan that done this just the ordinary people of the county.” When I read that, suddenly it became very vivid, and she was the first voice I heard of dissent from the white community.
I knew there were ways to get a more nuanced picture. It’s not that parts of this story had not been told. They were just scattered. It wasn’t that stories were impossible to know, but no one had ever bothered to look or ask these questions.