Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in Americaby Patrick Phillips
“Gripping and meticulously documented.”Don Schanche Jr., Washington PostForsyth County, Georgia, at the turn of the twentieth century, was home to a large African American community that included ministers and teachers, farmers and field hands, tradesmen, servants, and children. But then in September of 1912, three young black laborers were accused of raping and murdering a white girl. One man was dragged from a jail cell and lynched on the town square, two teenagers were hung after a one-day trial, and soon bands of white “night riders” launched a coordinated campaign of arson and terror, driving all 1,098 black citizens out of the county. The charred ruins of homes and churches disappeared into the weeds, until the people and places of black Forsyth were forgotten.National Book Award finalist Patrick Phillips tells Forsyth’s tragic story in vivid detail and traces its long history of racial violence all the way back to antebellum Georgia. Recalling his own childhood in the 1970s and ’80s, Phillips sheds light on the communal crimes of his hometown and the violent means by which locals kept Forsyth “all white” well into the 1990s. In precise, vivid prose, Blood at the Root delivers a “vital investigation of Forsyth’s history, and of the process by which racial injustice is perpetuated in America” (Congressman John Lewis).
Poet and translator Phillips (Elegy for a Broken Machine) employs his considerable writing skills to chronicle the racism that held Forsyth County, Ga., in its grip for three quarters of the 20th century. In 1912, an unknown person or persons raped two white women in Forsyth County, one of whom died of her injuries. As a result, a black man was beaten to death by a white mob, and two other black men, their guilt unclear, were convicted of the crime and hanged in a public execution. Forsyth’s white residents decided the executions were not sufficient retribution, and they subjected the county’s 1,100 African-American residents to a reign of terror that forced all of them to abandon their homes. The deeply embedded racism of a county functionally immune from law was sufficiently powerful to keep Forsyth County completely white for 75 years. On Jan. 17, 1987, a civil rights march 20,000 strong in the county seat, Cumming, brought the scourge of unmitigated white power to national attention, forcing the beginnings of integration. Phillips enhances his exposé of this violent and shameful history through interviews with descendants of the white families who brazenly exiled the county’s black community as well as the descendants of those forced to leave. This is a gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism, and Phillips tells it with rare clarity and power. Agent: Don Fehr, Trident Media. (Sept.)
In gripping and devastating detail, writer and poet Phillips (Elegy for a Broken Machine) uncovers a history of lynching, racial violence, terrorism, and white supremacy that marked the history of Forsyth County, GA, for a century and made it the "whitest" place in the United States. The story is both personal and pertinent, as the author digs into a forgotten past of his hometown and asks probing questions about the persistence of racism and the tenacity of hatred. The book focuses on the lynching of two black teenagers for the murder of a young white girl in 1912. The subsequent "racial cleansing" of the county involved angry mobs and night riders driving blacks out of the area and cheating them of their property. There were many and varied efforts to keep the county a "white man's country" even in the face of a modernizing South and civil rights activism. This was balanced with the posturing of public officials wanting to gain respect and business investment from "outsiders" while supporting their constituents' demands for racial cleansing. VERDICT There are few heroes in this accounting, which stands as a sobering reminder that the racial fantasies and fears that have ruled so much of our history only continue to haunt the present.—Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia
A history of white supremacy's endurance in a Georgia county.In 1977, Phillips (English/Drew Univ.; Elegy for a Broken Machine: Poems, 2015, etc.) moved with his family from Atlanta to a small town in Forsyth County, Georgia, hoping to enjoy the simple pleasures of a quieter life. What the young boy discovered was "a world where nobody liked outsiders," most especially, and vehemently, blacks. The color line was drawn "between all that was good and cherished and beloved and everything they thought evil, and dirty, and despised." In an effort to understand the world in which he grew up, the author has uncovered a shocking story as heartbreaking as it is infuriating. Although in the minority, blacks had long co-existed with whites in Forsyth County, some as slaves, many as landowners and small-business owners. But in September 1912, after a white woman was found beaten and raped, virulent racism erupted, resulting in the lynching of one of three black suspects and, in the weeks that followed, the purging of all blacks—more than 1,000—who lived in the county. Night riders fired shots into doors, threw rocks through windows, demolished homes with dynamite, and burned churches. By the end of October, the black population was gone, and any who ever appeared in the county—through temerity or mistake—were violently run off. "Racial purity is Forsyth's security," whites proclaimed. Some black landowners managed to sell their property to whites before they left, but most abandoned their homes, knowing that their land would be taken over by whites claiming it for themselves. Throughout the book, Phillips successfully contextualizes Forsyth in American racism's long history. After Woodrow Wilson was elected on promises of "fair dealing" for blacks, he unapologetically enforced segregation. Decades later, in 1987, when civil rights groups staged a march through Forsyth, they were met with violence—an episode the author recounts with moving intimacy. An impressive reckoning with a shameful piece of the past that "most natives of Forsyth would prefer to leave…scattered in the state's dusty archives or safely hidden in plain sight."
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author
Patrick Phillips is an award-winning poet, translator, and professor. A Guggenheim and NEA Fellow, his poetry collection, Elegy for a Broken Machine, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Phillips lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Drew University.
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