“Do You Think You’re Not Involved?” The Racial Reckoning of “Blood at the Root”Historians in the News
tags: racism, Jim Crow, Georgia, Ethnic Cleansing, Forsyth County
Nearly fifteen years ago, the poets Natasha Trethewey and Patrick Phillips were sharing a taxi in New York City when they began talking about their shared Southern origins. She was born and raised in Mississippi; he grew up in Georgia. Midway through their conversation, Trethewey said to Phillips, “I know about Forsyth County. I know about where you are from.”
Only those who know the history of Forsyth County, Georgia, can imagine how exposed Phillips must have felt in that moment. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented sixty-four hundred lynchings of Black men, women, and children between 1865 and 1950, and, although every one of those was a horrific act, only one is known to have inaugurated a decades-long reign of terror. That terror is what Trethewey was referencing when she said she knew about Forsyth County. “Why have you been silent on this?” Phillips remembers Trethewey asking him. “Do you think you’re not involved?”
Trethewey challenged her friend to write about his whiteness, as she had written about her Blackness, and it prompted him to spend years investigating the lynching of a man named Robert Edwards, in 1912, and all the violence that followed: church burnings, house bombings, and night raids that forced out the nearly eleven hundred African-Americans who lived in Forsyth County at the time. For seventy-five years, almost none returned. Phillips published his painful survey of that history, “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America,” in 2016, and I have thought about it often in the weeks since the murder of George Floyd, especially while watching the wave of protests—in large cities and small towns and everywhere in between—that have followed. Phillips’s book provides a model for the kind of reckoning that other Americans should undertake, wherever they call home.
When Mae Crow’s friends finally found her, on September 9, 1912, she was barely alive. The eighteen-year-old had been raped and beaten and left in a patch of pine trees along the banks of the Chattahoochee River. The young white woman was only a mile from where she lived with her parents and eight siblings, and not quite twenty miles from where, a few days before, another young white woman said that a Black man had tried to rape her. The fear and fury provoked by that first alleged attack animated the community’s reaction to the second. Crow had gone missing on a Sunday, and was found early on Monday morning. By Tuesday, with no evidence and no witnesses, two African-Americans had been arrested: Ernest Knox, who was sixteen years old, and Robert Edwards, who was twenty-four.
Edwards did not live to see Wednesday. Knox was arrested first, but, after being threatened with a mock lynching, he professed guilt, and was turned over to the sheriff in a neighboring county. Edwards, who was known as Big Rob, was arrested later, on Tuesday morning, and taken directly to the county seat of Cumming, where a mob of two thousand locals awaited him. Unable to attack Knox, who was protected in a fortified jail, in Fulton County, known as the Tower, the vigilantes fixated on Edwards. It is not known whether he died from the blows of a crowbar to his head or from the bullets and buckshot that were fired at him, but Edwards’s bruised and bloodied body was dragged from the jail and then hanged from a telephone poll in the town square.
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