Patrick Phillips, Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America. New York: Norton, 2017. 336pp.
In 1912 two unexplained in events set off an out-right race war in north Georgia.
The first was the alleged rape of Ellen Grice. Uncertainty surrounds what actually happened, but reports were that Grice was awakened by the presence of a black man in her bed. This led quickly to the conclusion that Grice had been raped.
The second was the brutal attack of Mae Crow. The eighteen year old Crow was beaten and left for dead. When discovered, she recounted that she was set upon by a black man or men. Again, the conclusion reached was sexual assault.
These two events precipitated the single largest act of ethnic cleansing and racial terrorism in the United States–apart from the forced migration of American Indians.
Beginning in 1912, bands of local white men–the knight riders, as they became known–threatened, intimidated, and harassed the black population of Forsyth County until more than a thousand African Americans, virtually the entire black population of the county.
This racial boundary was to remain intact for more than seventy years. It allowed numerous white families to fraudulently use the Common Law tool of Adverse Possession to claim the farms and buildings once owned by hard-working black families. With a wink and a nod, white farmers went to the County Court House and paid the property tax on their black neighbors land and seven years later claimed title the property, free and clear.
A lucky few blacks managed to sell their land and buildings for less that market value before leaving.
For Phillips, the story has a personal element. Raised in Forsyth County to progressive parents, his family took part in two marches in 1987 that brought attention to what can only be called the atrocities of that period. Myriad lynchings, beatings, dynamiting, and other violence was directed at blacks who had enjoyed emancipation for less than a generation. Truly, Jim Crow is a term too sterile to describe the terror of those years.
With his gentle, steady prose Phillips artfully explores the full impact of those years of terror and the resulting seventy years of silence that followed.
As with many works that chronicle such intense historical events its difficult for the reader to maintain steady engagement across all of the pages. I read the book in two days and found myself faltering about three-fourths of the way through. Perhaps that’s white fragility or simple fatigue, I can’t say.
However, I’m glad I read to the end.
If you want more about the atrocities committed in Forsyth County, watch this video from PBS.