Sunday, March 25, 2018

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Blood at the Root
Patrick Phillips

Phillips grew up in Forsyth County, Georgia, an old farming community that had lately become more suburban as the city of Atlanta grew.  He remembers being told that no blacks lived in Forsyth County because they had all been chased out.  Some 40 years after hearing that rumor, he has written a compelling history of the violent racial cleansing Forsyth school children bragged about in the 1970s.

Over a period of just a few weeks in 1912, white residents of Forsyth responded to the murder of a white woman by lynching one black man and railroading several others who would be legally hung although they clearly had nothing to do with the crime.  The racist furor continued and night riders, many who would go on to form the county's large Klan population in the 1920s, terrorized the other black residents into leaving the county.  Hundreds of black families abandoned farms and property under threat of lynching.  The property was often burned and the land claimed by white families who, slowly over the next decade, took possession of the abandoned farms and filed claims for deeds in the county courthouse.

The lynchings and the thefts remained open secrets for generations - Forsyth residents freely bragged that their county was all-white but none of the crimes behind the claim were ever investigated.  For decades wealthy Atlantans knew not to drive through Forsyth if their chauffeurs were black, companies making deliveries knew to have black workers hide under tarps if they had to stop in Cumming or Oscarville.  African Americans were not simply denied the right to live in Forsyth:  they were violently prevented from even driving through.

Phillip continues the history through contemporary crimes against unwitting African Americans in the 1980s, protest marches that are met with large and vicious counter-protests in 1987, and the slow changes wrought by full-scale suburbanization in recent years.  He takes us on side-trips to Detroit and other locations that show that this is not a Southern problem even as he keeps the focus tightly on the specifics of this Southern location.

The sheer size and viciousness of the crimes is appalling, even to one well-read in American racial history, and the slow pace of change - indeed the meager changes that get counted as advancements - are shaming.

The research here is impressive and, while some of the prose is less than thrilling, Phillips never gets in the way of his story, which is well worth telling.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

This sounds horrific but also really interesting.