Reading Matters

Whites drove blacks out of this Georgia county – for good – in 1912

My mother’s best friend when I was growing up was from Forsyth County, Ga., and yet I had never heard a word of the horror story of what went on in that area’s history.

But, of course, that’s often the way it is with white people and black horror stories. We don’t hear about these things. Or we don’t want to hear about these things. Or the stories don’t get passed down.

The story is well told in Patrick Phillips’ new book, “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America.” In short: At the turn of the 20th Century, Forsyth County was home to large African American community. Ministers, teachers, farmers, field hands, servants, children.

But in September, 1912, three black men were accused of raping and murdering a white girl. According to the book jacket, “Soon bands of white ‘night riders’ launched a coordinated campaign of arson and terror, driving all 1,098 black citizens out of the county.”

They set fire to their houses, dynamited their cabins and so terrorized the black community, that they all fled in terror. Never to return.

Many of the black people who were driven out had survived slavery, and a few had owned their own house and land. The white marauders took over that land, even their tombstones.

Locals kept Forsyth County “all white” into the 1990s. In 1997, African-Americans numbered a mere 39 in a population of 75,739.

In his “Author’s Note,” Phillips, who is himself an award-winning poet, says this book would not exist but “without a kind but determined push from (poet) Natasha Trethewey, who challenged me, more than a decade ago, to tell this story.

Phillips talks about a cab ride, in which Trethewey turned to him and asked why it was that she, a southern woman of color, wrote about ‘blackness,’ while, Phillips, a white man “from one of the most racist places in the country, never said a word about ‘whiteness.’

“Why,” Natasha asked him, “do you think you’re not involved?”

“I am ashamed to recall how I defended my silence,” he writes. “And I am proud to say that her question helped me begin this project.”

A major story of power, corruptness, control, white supremacy and racial cruelty and annihilation.