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.”