The Makings of a Sundown Town: Patrick Phillips on 'Blood at the Root'
With Blood at the Root, National Book Award finalist Patrick Phillips has laid bare the history of an American tragedy, over a century old, that speaks volumes to the wounds and prejudices that still divide communities across the nation. Delving into an outbreak of terror and violence in pre–World War I Georgia that effectively drove all the black residents from a county outside of Atlanta, Phillips found his own childhood memories entangled with the long legacy of racism, which kept Forsyth County an "all-white" region for decades. Blood at the Root represents his long investigation into both the 1912 spasm of racist terror and the lives through which it reverberated over generations. Tayari Jones
Tayari Jones: First, Patrick, I want to say congratulations to you on this book. You've got not one, but two rave reviews in the New York Times. I heard you on NPR. What is it about this story that you think has captured the imagination right now?
Patrick Phillips: Thank you and that's a good question. Blood at the Root took me a large part of the last decade to write. I did a lot of research for a long time. For much of the time that I was working on it, I wasn't sure whether I could find out the truth about the story. I wasn't entirely sure where all of the research and everything was leading. But at the same time that I was doing that work, the headlines began to coincide with a lot of the things that I was finding in the archives in Georgia. There was the death of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, all of these episodes that started to take the nation's attention. I think in some ways there are some inevitable parallels between what's going on in America right now and the kinds of racial violence and I think some of the issues about equal protection under the law, equal enforcement of the law, that may be resonating.
TJ: Let's back up a little and talk about the story. I grew up in Atlanta, born and raised in southwest Atlanta – there's a saying we have in Atlanta: if you drive fifty miles outside of Atlanta, you end up in Georgia. Atlanta is kind of sophisticated, and also a majority-black city. That was the whole thing. We always stayed in Atlanta. We didn't go this way, this way or that way. And north was Forsyth County, which we always would call (I don't know if you know this expression) a sundown town. A sundown town is a town where black people should not be after sundown.
I had never considered how Forsyth County ended up all-white. I thought it just was. Maybe you can tell a little bit about the incident that's at the center of this book, and then we can go from there.
PP: In 1912, there was a woman named Mae Crow. Mae Crow was an eighteen-year-old white woman who was found beaten and bloody in the woods of north Georgia, in Forsyth County. This happens to be the place where I grew up. The house where my parents lived in the 1970s was just a few miles from where this incident occurred. All of this, I should say, was murky and kind of legendary and told in mythic terms when I was a kid growing up there.
Mae Crow was found in the woods, and when she was found . . . she was in a coma for about two weeks and eventually died. I found a letter from a young woman who was fourteen at the time who said all hell broke loose in Forsyth County on the night of her funeral. Bands of night riders set out to punish the entire black community of Forsyth County for this. They used arson, dynamite, gunfire, they posted notices. Their earliest targets were the black churches. There were five black churches burned in the first week of this.
Eventually, over the course of September–November 1912, they succeeded in expelling the entire African-American population of Forsyth, which numbered 1,098 in the census of 1910. While this occurred in other places in America in Rosewood, Florida, then there was the bombing of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 there was something unusual about Forsyth, which is: They succeeded and they kept it that way. This was passed down generation to generation.
So when you and I were growing up in Georgia in the 1970s, Forsyth County was still an "all white" county. This was still violently enforced through the '70s and '80s.
TJ: I remember a story about a black couple that was driving through . . .
PP: Yes. In 1980, a guy named Miguel Marcelli, who was a city of Atlanta firefighter, was going to a company picnic party in the county. His girlfriend was working for a computer company in Atlanta, and they just happened to have their company picnic up on Lake Lanier, which is a lake inside the county. Miguel Marcelli and his girlfriend were leaving the party, and they were basically ambushed by two white men descendants, in fact, of Mae Crow. Melvin Crow was one of the people behind this. Miguel Marcelli was shot in the head and in the neck and survived it. But this happened in 1980, so at this point we're seventy years after the fact, and this is still being enforced with an attack like that.
TJ: I just can't quite get over this story because it's so close to Atlanta. It's how many miles from Atlanta?
PP: Thirty miles.
TJ: I guess right up the street. You can go to the mall. It's that close to what was considered to be the jewel of the South what was Atlanta's motto, "the city too busy to hate"?
PP: That's right.
TJ: And this was right up the street. Maybe you all remember when Oprah went there. Did you see when Oprah went there? No? This was in 1987, when Oprah first came on television. It was one of her first shows.
PP: Oprah came down in 1987. This is the one part of the Forsyth County story that some people may remember. In 1987, there was a march called the Brotherhood March. It was organized by some sympathetic people in the white community in Forsyth who were tired of the intimidation and the fear. They joined forces with people from the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolence in Atlanta. A guy named Hosea Williams, who had been one of King's real right-hand men King called Hosea, "my Castro, my wild man." Hosea Williams led the Selma march in 1965 on the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
So he came to Forsyth County in 1987. My mother and father and my sister were part of this march. It was a group of seventy-five. They were set upon by a white mob on January 17, 1987, and eventually the march had to be stopped because the police started arresting men who had come to the "counter protest" armed. In the wake of that, these images of a sort of gang of white men attacking peace marchers went all over the world. Oprah came down a week later and filmed an episode of her brand-new talk show. She filmed a town hall meeting on the square to try to get to the bottom of it and try to find out what was going on.
TJ: That for me is when I first heard the story about Forsyth County. One thing we do in the South is that we keep our history quiet in a certain way, or have a kind of mythological history. I found out that the neighborhood I grew up in in Atlanta, that before my parents moved there, months before, there had been a wall erected to prevent them from moving in. I never knew this until I was an adult. It's like there was a conspiracy of silence. How did you find out about it and how did you come to write it?
PP: I had always known the story. My parents moved there when I was seven years old from north-side Atlanta. A new highway was completed. So it first became a bedroom community of Atlanta, and my parents moved there. My parents are both from Birmingham. They had grown up in Birmingham in the '50s and had a real rift with their families over integration. So my parents had marched in civil rights marches, and they weren't naive about exactly what you said what lay just outside of Atlanta. But none of us expected the depth of the hatred that we found there.
So even as a schoolkid, I asked some of my classmates, "Why are there no black people here? Why is everyone so full of hatred when there don't seem to be any people of color around?" That's when I first heard this story in its most mythic terms, which was that, a long-long time ago, this girl had been attacked and, in response, the white people had "run out" all of their black neighbors. That's the version of it I always knew. And exactly as you say, it was always told in very vague, mythic terms. There were never any names or dates or places. It was stripped of all of the detail. So it seemed like this thing that was just lost in the mists of time.
Even in 1987, when people came to try to investigate this after that march, ultimately a lot of the locals in the county put up real roadblocks to anyone finding the details. I actually talked to a guy who helped hide one of the ledgers that contained the tax roll from 1912. So there was a concerted effort to keep this out of the public eye. He didn't know that the Mormons had microfilmed it in the 1960s, so I found it in the State Archives.
TJ: How did you go from hearing this story to finding the truth?
PP: At a certain point, I found a photograph of the prisoners. I was at NYU, in graduate school, and I had been working on all sorts of other things in English literature. One night I was sort of playing hooky from my real work. But I realized I was sitting at a computer terminal that had all of this power to find things out about the past, especially as newspapers had been digitized, as library archives had come online. I thought, Well, what do I want to look up? I typed in "Forsyth County" and "murder" and "1912," because I knew this was the year it was said to have happened. All of a sudden, all of these newspapers came up, the original images, and there was a photograph of six prisoners. These were the very first faces of Black Forsyth I had ever seen, of the community that had once existed there.
Seeing that photograph really changed my life. I suddenly thought this might be knowable, it might be possible to find this out. As it turned out, that involved years of going down to Atlanta, digging in the County Courthouse, a lot of interviews with descendants of the families who were forced out. The pieces were there, but they were scattered all over the place. So it involved a kind of obsessive search for information.
Mae Crow was the daughter of a sharecropper in a place called Oscarville, which is very near where I grew up. A very small community. Her descendants included a lot of people who I went to school with. When I was doing the archival research, almost all of the family names were very familiar to me. I did have a sense that being from the place was an advantage in trying to find out this story. I was able to get some of these people to talk to me, I think, in ways that would have been difficult from someone without a connection.
There were two boys who were accused of raping and killing Mae Crow Oscar Daniel and Ernest Knox. Ernest Knox was sixteen. He was an orphan. Worked as a "hired man" from the time he was fourteen. Oscar Daniel was eighteen. So the two of them were tried during a one-day trial and executed in a double hanging that was attended by 5,000 people. The whole county came out, and spread picnic blankets on a hillside (I've actually walked the ground where this took place), and it became a real festival day.
I had always been led to believe that the black community in Forsyth were entirely marginal, very poor, with no real hold on the place. There were plenty of people like that. Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel were, in fact, really poor. But there was this whole other stratum of the black community who worked in the houses of wealthy white citizens. There were ministers, teachers . . . There were property owners, like Joseph Kellogg. He owned 200 acres in the county. He was twenty-one when he was emancipated. I followed him through the census rolls and the tax rolls, accumulating a little bit of land every decade, basically taking the profits from one harvest after another. And he came to own that 200 acres of land over the course of forty years of labor. I found the story heartbreaking when I knew it in its broadest outlines. But when I got done following Joseph Kellogg and his wife Eliza accumulating this land with such labor, it was doubly heartbreaking when I realized what had happened to them.
The county sheriff was a man named Bill Reid. He was a future Ku Klux Klansman. I had always also had an understanding that this was unanimous, and that it had been a kind of monolithic white community that did this. In reality, there were people who realized what was going on, who wrote to the governor, who called for troops to be sent in, who wrote to the federal judiciary asking for help and ultimately none of those pleas for help were answered by anyone in government.
I did an event in Atlanta last week. The great-granddaughter of Fred Brown [one of the victims profiled in the book] was at the event. The first question of the Q&A, she stood up, and she said, "I have a comment. That's my great-grandfather." She just started crying. It was an amazing event. So getting to know some of the descendants of these people, many of whom I had also been led to think of as kind of vanishing . . . In reality, a lot of them were in Atlanta, a lot in Paul County, very nearby. Some of these folks were living in communities I'd driven past many times as a high-schooler. So I felt a real sense of loss when I realized that if a single teacher or anyone had ever told me about this, there were people who would have remembered it and could have given firsthand accounts of it when I was living there in the '80s. But it was so completely erased.
TJ: Of everything you discovered in your research, what was the thing that surprised you most?
PP: I think the complexity of the two communities and their interconnectedness surprised me. I talked with many descendants whose grandparents and great-grandparents were open about having white fathers. This was a community of people who were originally brought into the county as slaes. So the people who were expelled from Forsyth were much more deeply enmeshed in the fabric of the community than I had understood, including being genetically connected to some of the people who ran them out.
In general, part of denying this event and part of avoiding dealing with the pain of it for the white community has involved a lot of mythmaking that these people were marginal, that they weren't very well known by the people who attacked them and in reality, the opposite was true. These were neighbors driving out people they had known and worked with all their lives.
TJ: I've read similar work by Diane McWhorter and also Edward Ball. These were white southerners who investigated the violent past of their home. You came to Forsyth as a seven-year-old, so it's not quite the same as those two authors who were really finding out literally the sense of their fathers. But how were you changed? How are different now than when you first saw that picture when you were a student at NYU?
PP: I think I'm still figuring out the answer to that in some ways. I didn't start writing this book until I was in my forties, my late thirties. Now I look back and I'm surprised that I managed to not write about it sooner. I guess I think that had to do with a really pervasive sense of . . . particularly among liberal white people, which is to try to do no harm, give no offense, essentially stay on the sidelines of our discussions about race. Writing the book has me convinced that one of the ways forward is for white people in America to face their profound involvement in these struggles. So I've been changed in that I thought I was being polite by not talking about race, and I think now that was cowardly and no help to anyone.
TJ: That's really something to think about. I do agree that we have to understand, like you said, that people in Forsyth were neighbors and even sometimes relatives that our history is a shared history. You and I are both southerners. We're both from Georgia. We both live in Brooklyn. Which gives us a bond it may not give us at home. It's almost like when you travel abroad and you meet other Americans, and you act like you're cousins.
PP: It's true.
TJ: So, do you still consider yourself to be a southerner, and what does that mean to you?
PP: In some ways, yeah. I think I feel more southern after writing the book than I did before, in that I went home a lot. I hadn't been home. My parents are from Birmingham - - the Birmingham of Bull Connor and George Wallace. So they had a very strong desire for me to get out. For a long time I guess I let that divide me from the place a little bit. Writing the book has been a kind of homecoming, too, to go back and delve into the complexities rather than just turning away from them.
TJ: It's really interesting, thinking about Southern identity. I don't know if you've had this experience, but when I tell people I'm from Georgia, they act like I came to Brooklyn on the Underground Railroad. "Are you OK?" "Do you have a roommate?"
PP: 'How did you ever make it?' [Laughs]
TJ: So sometimes, even when I'm looking at these histories, I feel a little bit like I am reinforcing a stereotype about my home.
PP: Yes. Yes.
TJ: Did you have any trepidation?
PP: Well, I did. I think you put your finger right on it. Jane Daniel, who is the sister, the twenty-one-year-old sister of Oscar, also barely escaped alive from this. She was accused. She ended up testifying against her brother, and my strong sense is that a plea deal was offered when the two boys were dead men walking and there was no hope, and so she ended up telling the story that the white people in the county needed to hear. This is a horrible thing that happened.
I lost track of her I couldn't find Jane. I lost her in the archives. Her trail went completely cold. Eventually, I found something on ancestry.com that said that her grandniece was alive in Gainesville, Georgia. So I flew down there, and at the end of one my research trips, I went to four different nursing homes in Gainesville, and eventually I found Mattie Daniel, eighty-two years old, the grandniece of Jane Daniel and in fifteen minutes she solved every mystery that I had been trying to unravel for two years. She told me that Jane went to Detroit. She joined the great northern migration. She settled in Detroit. She married a man named Will. He worked in one of the factories in Detroit, and Jane was a washerwoman in the city. Essentially, I thought I had a kind of happy ending: "One of these people gets out, gets out of Georgia, gets way from the night riders and the Klansmen."
Then, in researching more about where they lived, I found they lived in a part of Detroit called Paradise Valley. Some people may be aware of what happened in Detroit in 1943. Race riots broke out. I don't know exactly what their experience was, but there is no question they were there in July 1943. And in their neighborhood in July 1943, bands of white men, many of them European immigrants, but nonetheless bands of white men with wooden clubs, roved through the black neighborhoods of Detroit and beat thirty people to death. Eventually, the state National Guard had to come in to stop this.
I say that in answer to your question, because I think even I had internalized this sense that to escape Georgia was to escape the experience of being African American in Jim Crow and in the mid- twentieth century. But of course, that was not the case. Jane escaped into America.
TJ: That is so disturbing.
PP: I wanted a happy moment in the book, but it didn't last.
TJ: You completely threw me with that. I thought this story was going somewhere else. I guess . . .
PP: There is a happy ending, though. If I can . . .
TJ: Please. I'm begging you.
PP: Today one of my friends is a guy named Daniel Blackman, who is a state senate candidate in Forsyth County, an African-American man running from Forsyth against Donald Trump's head of campaign in the state of Georgia. Daniel's three children go to school in Forsyth County. It's a place that is now 200,000 instead of 30,000, 10 percent Latino, 8 percent Asian, and 4 percent African American. The place is slowly changing.
October 26, 2016