‘Blood at the Root’

An excerpt from a new book about the racial cleansing of Forsyth County by Patrick Phillips.


All night, as Mae Crow drifted in and out of consciousness, searchers called through the pines, the sound of her name rising and fading into the drone of the tree frogs. There, in the woods along the Chattahoochee River, in the Appalachian foothills north of Atlanta, she’d been beaten and left to die, and now lay too bloodied and breathless to answer.

Near dawn, as the first rays of sunlight dappled the gulley, a farmer who’d known Mae all her life came stamping down a narrow footpath. He stopped in his tracks, turned, and hollered for the others to come.

By the next day — Sept. 10, 1912 — the Forsyth County sheriff had arrested three young black suspects. And while it would take two months and three separate deployments of the Georgia National Guard before Ernest Knox, 16, and Oscar Daniel, 18, were formally tried, convicted and sentenced to hang, for the third prisoner, a 24-year-old man named Rob Edwards, death came quickly.

When a rumor spread that “Big Rob” had confessed to the crime, a group of white farmers stormed the county jail and, according to one witness, shot Edwards as he cowered in his cell, then bashed in his skull with crowbars. Others say Edwards emerged alive, pleading for mercy, and died while being dragged from the back of a wagon, a noose cinched tight around his neck.

As spectators streamed toward the town square, someone lobbed a rope over the yardarm of a telephone pole and hoisted Edwards’ limp body skyward. People took turns with pistols and shotguns, and each time a load of buckshot spun the mutilated corpse, the crowd of hundreds roared.

There was nothing unusual about the lynching of a black man in Georgia in 1912, and the next morning the sight of Edwards’ body, laid out on the courthouse lawn, seemed to satisfy those most hungry for vengeance. But a few weeks later, newspapers reported that Mae Crow, known as one of the most beautiful girls in all of Forsyth, had weakened and died from her injuries at the age of 18.

On the day of her funeral, groups of white men gathered at crossroads all over the county. They talked quietly on the porches of country stores and huddled in the dusty thresholds of barns. At the graveside they held their hats over their hearts, eyes blazing as they watched Mae’s mother, Azzie, weep over the casket. They were quiet and respectful all afternoon, according to one schoolmate of Mae’s. But when darkness fell, she said, “all hell broke loose” in Forsyth County.

That was the night bands of white men set out on horseback, riding toward the little clusters of cabins that dotted the woodlands and pastures along the river. Using posted notices, scrawled letters, rifles, torches and sticks of dynamite, they delivered a message to their black neighbors — including many they had known and worked with all their lives. The black people of Forsyth could either load up and get across the county line before the next sundown, or stay and die like Rob Edwards.

By the end of October, the night riders had forced out all but a handful of the 1,098 members of the African American community — who left in their wake abandoned homes and schools, stores and livestock, and harvest-ready crops standing in the fields. Overnight, their churches stood empty, the rooms where they used to sing “River of Jordan” and “Go Down Moses” now suddenly, eerily quiet.

The purge was so successful that within weeks there was no one left for the mobs to terrorize, and whites who had either taken part in the raids or simply stood aside as they passed now settled back into the rhythms of farm life.

Generation after generation, Forsyth County remained “all white,” even as the Great War, the Spanish influenza, World War II, and the civil rights movement came and went. Throughout the century, whenever someone intentionally or unwittingly violated the racial ban, white men could be counted on to rise up like they always had and drive the intruders away. Years might pass between such episodes, but each time it happened, Georgians were reminded that while the racial cleansing of 1912 seemed like ancient history, in truth, it had never really ended.

***

Looking to capitalize on a recent craze for glamorous driving tours, in the fall of 1915 the Georgia Chamber of Commerce organized an event called Seeing Georgia, which would lead a group of automobile enthusiasts through the northern region of the state, staying each night in a different town.

“Seeing Georgia” attracted the interest of mayors, business leaders and society women, as well as northern capitalists looking to make investments in the South. The list of participants included many bold-faced names, such as Charles J. Haden, president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce; James Price, state commissioner of agriculture; and K. G. Matheson, president of Georgia Institute of Technology. There were also prominent businessmen like A. C. Webb, manager of Atlanta’s first Studebaker dealership, and Wylie West, a former racecar driver who was now a regional manager for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.

When Cumming mayor Charlie Harris learned that the tour would bring a group of rich and powerful men into the foothills, he used his connections at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce to get Forsyth County added to the proposed route. Harris knew that “Seeing Georgia” was a rare opportunity to promote his home county — and to show the whole state just how much money could be made there once the Atlanta Northeastern Railroad was complete.

After driving from Macon to Milledgeville and then to Athens, the second leg of the tour entered the north Georgia mountains, where the tourists viewed the colorful fall foliage and spent a night near a state-of-the-art hydroelectric plant at Tallulah Falls. The group was then scheduled to turn back south toward Hall County, and from there to drive west, for a brief stopover at Cumming.

But during their lunchtime break in Gainesville, a group of Hall residents urged tour leaders to decline Charlie Harris’ invitation and skip Forsyth County altogether. The reason for their concern: many of the cars carrying affluent white men and women were being driven by uniformed black chauffeurs.

According to reporters, when Harris learned that the tourists might cancel their visit, he dispatched a messenger, who drove to Gainesville at breakneck speed. Harris’ man arrived just as tour organizers were debating whether or not to take a detour, and he assured the participants that their black drivers would encounter no problems. The mayor of Cumming offered his personal guarantee of safety.

* * *

Steady rain on the morning of Monday, Oct. 4, turned the red clay road between Gainesville and Cumming into a quagmire, and journalist Emma Martin, covering the Seeing Georgia tour for the Macon Telegraph, said the long line of automobiles needed frequent help from locals as they made their way west. “The good farmers of Hall County came to our rescue by the dozens,” she wrote, “and whenever we skidded they came on foot and on horseback, and went with us to the Forsyth County line.”

But as they rounded a curve and saw Browns Bridge coming into view, Martin learned that even the white farmers of Hall now thought of Forsyth as a world apart and treated the county line as more than just a border between two local governments. They would not cross the bridge.

Having put their faith, and the lives of their drivers, in the hands of Charlie Harris, the tourists soon realized that they had made a serious mistake. After rattling over the Chattahoochee on the narrow, wooden-planked bridge, the long line of cars rolled into a sleepy little crossroads settlement that the maps referred to as Oscarville. It was exactly the kind of quaint rural village that the organizers had promised the tour would feature. But according to a reporter for the Georgian, “farmers at [the] hamlet spied a negro chauffeur in the car of W. A. McCullough, of Atlanta, and went after him. One threw a stick of stove wood that passed dangerously near the head of the frightened darky, and also near Mr. McCullough and his guests.”

“When McCullough’s car drove into sight,” said another witness, “one of the men saw the negro chauffeur driving and shouted ‘Look yonder, boys, get him, get him.’ As the car shot past, one of the men grabbed a stick and let fly… . From there on into Cumming there were frequent curses and threats and rocks hurled at the cars.”

The tour’s genteel passengers came from some of the wealthiest families in Georgia, and it is easy to imagine their horrified faces as they peered out through muddy windshields and got their first look at the cursing, violent white “mountaineers” of Forsyth. Skidding and fishtailing over the rain-soaked roads, the black drivers raced out of Oscarville, and toward what they hoped would be a safe haven at the county seat.

A smiling Charlie Harris was waiting for them on the Cumming square, and after hearing reports of the “trouble” out in Oscarville, the mayor assured everyone that their ordeal was over, and that the black drivers were now perfectly safe.

The Constitution said Harris was “most cordial and reassured the tourists that there would be no harm done to any one … [as] school children lined up and sang songs.”

But when word spread that there were black men sitting in a row of cars lined up outside the Cumming courthouse, “mob spirit” boiled up all over town. The children had just finished their performance and the tourists were hurrying to get back on the road when “things took on a more serious aspect.”

According to one reporter, “several men gathered around (a) car and threatened to take from it the negro chauffeur… . One man caught hold of the negro’s arm and said ‘I’ve got his arm. Somebody take his legs.’ Mr. Simpson warned them not to execute their threat and ordered the negro to speed up, (until) the car shot out of line and forged past the others.’

After months of anticipation, Seeing Georgia had finally brought to Forsyth exactly the kinds of businessmen and deep- pocketed investors who could help Charlie Harris transform Cumming into a prosperous railroad town. But all he could do was watch in horror as one car after another roared down Main Street at full throttle, pursued by a mob of screaming, rock-throwing whites.

There was great indignation when reports of the attacks reached Atlanta, and many of the participants in Seeing Georgia vowed to speak out against the mobs who had tried to lynch their employees. When the tour stopped for supper in Tate, a lawyer and former superior court judge named Wright Willingham addressed reporters and called on state leaders to take action against Forsyth’s racial ban.

Had one white passenger not “reached for his revolver,” Willingham said, there might have been another lynching on the Cumming square — in full sight of the mayor, the Seeing Georgia tourists cowering in their cars and the schoolchildren standing with songbooks tucked under their arms. “Conditions like this,” Willingham went on, “can no longer be regarded with calm satisfaction but must commend themselves to the patriotic men of our state. The governor of Georgia, the men who represent this state in the legislature, the judges of the superior courts cannot pass in silence over this state of anarchy which is being bred in this commonwealth… . Ultimately, unless checked, (it) will bury its fangs in the body politic.”

As he sat in his office at the Cumming courthouse, scanning the headlines on the morning of Oct. 5, 1915, Charlie Harris must have been despondent. All over the state, people read about wives who held off the mobs with drawn pistols. Newspapers as far away as Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and New York spoke not of the resources and business opportunities in Harris’ home county but of its widespread bigotry. “Georgia Crackers Rock Negro Chauffeurs,” one headline read. “Stoned by Georgia Mob,” said another.

The message to his investors in Atlanta was unmistakable. Harris had tried since 1912 to reassure them that Forsyth was the ideal terminus for a rail spur linking the state capitol to the foothills. But the very first delegation of business leaders who’d gone there had been stoned and cursed by furious white men who’d tried to lynch their black chauffeurs.

Soon thereafter, Charlie Harris gave up on his troubled railroad plan.

***

In 1919, Harris relocated to the little town of Cordele, in Crisp County, 200 miles south of Forsyth. Once there, he formed the South Georgia Land and Auction Company and, with local partners at the Cordele Bank and Trust Company, began buying and selling large parcels of farmland in south Georgia. In Cordele, Charlie Harris would make his fortune in the 1920s, investing all the energy, talent, and drive that had made him a leader in Forsyth.

Harris’ departure was in many ways the beginning of the end of resistance to the purge, as moderate figures left one by one or simply learned to hold their peace. The future of Cumming was left in the hands of men who believed that Forsyth was, and should remain, “a white man’s county.”

Deputy Mitchell Gay Lummus had made a valiant attempt to stop the lynching of Rob Edwards back in 1912, and twice he tried to unseat Bill Reid as county sheriff. But not long after his second defeat, in 1914, it seems that Lummus, too, had had enough of his troubled home place. If the railways of the new century would not be coming to Forsyth, Lummus decided, he would go to them.

When he filled out his World War I draft card in 1917, Lummus was living in Atlanta and on the payroll of the Georgia Railway and Power Company, where he worked as a motorman on the city’s streetcar lines. The former deputy seems to have adapted quickly to life in the city, and he left his second wife and children back in Cumming. He would never again live in Forsyth County.

Lummus and Harris were once the most visible white allies of the county’s black residents, but only a few years after the expulsions, they were gone. And with their exit, the last open opposition to the racial cleansing fell silent. They left behind a place that — unlike other counties that endured episodes of night riding and attempts at racial cleansing — had actually succeeded in closing its borders to African Americans.

With no one left to speak out against the bigotry and intimidation, the county went into a kind of Rip Van Winkle sleep, as residents resumed lives that on the surface looked no different from any other rural place in Georgia. White Forsyth’s communal crime had been fiery and explosive in 1912, but its erasure would happen slowly, quietly, and one fence post at a time.

© W.W. Norton. Excerpt from “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America” by Patrick Phillips is published with permission from W.W. Norton.



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