Books are made of “words, words, words,” as Hamlet says, but they often begin in the opposite of language: silent awe and wonder. My first work of nonfiction, Blood at the Root
, started with just such a moment when, more than a decade ago, I came upon an old newspaper photograph from the Atlanta Constitution
The picture shows three white soldiers standing guard over six African American prisoners, on the morning of October 3, 1912. When I first saw it, all I knew about the racial cleansing of my hometown was what I had heard on the school bus as a boy: that a long, long time ago whites had “run out” all the black people in Forsyth County, Georgia. Kids said a lot of crazy, racist things in Forsyth in those days, so growing up I’d always regarded that story as just a myth — only a kind of ghost story or tall tale. Probably, I thought, the whole thing was just made up.
But when, years later, I clicked on a link and that photograph filled my computer screen, I was suddenly confronted with the truth — or at least something much closer to it than I ever thought I’d get. As I zoomed in and panned across the faces of the prisoners, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the image came to me bearing not just a secret, but an obligation.
That moment was the beginning of what turned into a decade-long search for the real history of my home. I now know that the prisoners were on their way from Atlanta to Cumming, Georgia, the place where I was raised in the Appalachian foothills. Once there, two teenage boys in the picture — Oscar Daniel (second from the left) and his cousin Ernest Knox (far right) — were convicted of raping and murdering a local white woman named Mae Crow. Knox, 16, and Daniel, 18, were hung on a gallows just outside of town, as thousands of white spectators cheered.
I also now know that in the wake of the executions, gangs of white men set out to punish the entire African American community for what they believed was a “black rebellion.” Groups of armed men roamed the county, setting fire to churches and shooting into homes, until all 1,098 African American residents had fled the terror. The mobs declared Forsyth “a white man’s county,” and they and their descendants used violence and intimidation to keep it that way for nearly 100 years — and throughout my childhood there in the 1970s and '80s.
I’ve now spent many years searching for surviving traces of that buried past, and each time I found a new photograph — whether it was of a perpetrator, a victim, or a bystander to the purge — I felt a new surge of energy, and renewed hope that the slow, often daunting work of archival research might lead me to the real story. And each new picture reminded me that the names I read in newspapers, letters, and military reports belonged not to characters in a novel, but to living, breathing people — men and women whose suffering was no less real simply because it had been erased, and then forgotten.
One morning I double-clicked an email from a friend back home, and was shocked to find myself face to face with the young woman whose death had unleashed the first waves of paranoia and violence in the fall of 1912.
Mae Crow, c. 1912
Here was the real Mae Crow, in whose name the mobs had launched their attacks, and whose legend had inspired generations of whites to defend what they called “the racial purity” of the county. All through my childhood, the story of Crow’s rape and murder was told to explain the “all-white” rule in Forsyth. Yet this was the first time I, or anyone I knew, had ever seen her face.
Equally startling was the day I first looked into the eyes of William W. Reid, a man who the governor called “a jellyfish sheriff,” too busy pandering for votes to enforce the law. I’d spent months reading about Sheriff Reid and his deputy, Mitchell Gay Lummus, and trying to understand how Lummus — who would fight to stop the racial cleansing — could work each day beside Reid, a known mob sympathizer and future member of the KKK.
Sheriff Bill Reid (l) and Deputy Mitchell Gay Lummus (r), c. 1912
As they stood shoulder to shoulder in a photographer’s studio, the two rivals looked almost exactly as I’d pictured them: Reid cocky, suspicious, and narrow-eyed; Lummus younger, leaner, and already looking hopelessly outnumbered.
The hardest challenge of all was finding images of the real heroes of the story: the African American people who once lived in Forsyth. Most of the county’s black citizens were poor, illiterate field hands like Oscar Daniel and Ernest Knox, and not surprisingly, they almost never found themselves in front of a camera. But at the turn of the century, Forsyth was also home to a group of prosperous and educated black residents, and I eventually made contact with some of their descendants. I stared long and hard at the family portraits they shared with me, trying to imagine the lives of people who had survived enslavement, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, only to become refugees in their own country. Leroy Grogan, for example, sent a photograph of his grandmother, Rosalee Brown, and her five siblings:
Harrison, Rosalee, Bertie, Fred, Naomi, and Minor Brown (l-r), c. 1896
This image, too, challenged much of what I thought I knew, for Rosalee stared back at me from a very different strata of Forsyth’s black society. These were the great grandchildren of a prominent minister named Levi Greenlee, who owned a 160-acre farm just outside of town. And for years their mother, Nancy Brown, had served in the homes of upper-class white families, cooking their meals and nursing their babies. This means that many of the richest and most powerful men in Cumming had known the Browns and the Greenlees for generations — yet still, somehow, they stood by as black homes and churches were set ablaze all over the county.
Near the end of my research, I came across an even more provocative image. It shows a jumble of buggies spilling out onto Tolbert Street, as people made their way home from the double hanging of Knox and Daniel. Two white men in the foreground stare directly into the camera, with an expression common to so many lynching photographs of the Jim Crow era: somber but self-assured, earnest yet openly content.
Cumming, Georgia, October 25th, 1912
The most surprising thing about the picture is that, in the bottom right-hand corner, you can just make out a group of young black men, standing at the edge of the crowd.
Detail: Cumming, Georgia, October 25th, 1912
On a day when the overwhelming majority of Forsyth’s African American residents had already fled, these men must have been among a small group of holdouts who remained in town. One is a buggy driver who has unhitched his mule and allowed it to graze by the roadside. The man on the left wears a rumpled hat, a white shirt, and a simple coat. But the third figure, in the center of the group, stands out as a man of means, and something of a dandy — with his crisp bowler, long topcoat and bow tie, and a gold watch chain looping down from the buttonhole of his vest. He also serves as a reminder that in the weeks to come, the whites of Forsyth would banish not just poor and marginal black laborers, but also land-owning black farmers, school teachers, church leaders, and tradesmen, who were once deeply enmeshed in the social fabric of the county.
In the course of writing Blood at the Root
, I learned more than I ever thought possible about those events. Yet even as the mountain of written evidence has grown, I’ve continued to look at these images with special fascination, and a profound sense of sadness and loss. In order to write Blood at the Root
, I relied on census records, letters, maps, deeds, and crumbling old newspapers. But none of those facts can compete with the power and poignancy of photographs. For there is nothing quite like looking into the eyes of the earnest, hard-working people of Forsyth’s black community — who cannot know, frozen in the eternal present of 1912, just how soon their world will disappear into the ashes.
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is an award-winning poet, translator, and professor. A Guggenheim and NEA Fellow, his book Elegy for a Broken Machine
was a finalist for the National Book Award. Phillips lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Drew University. Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America
is his most recent book.