Forsyth County, Georgia
"There were 1,098 blacks living there in 1912. Within a matter of months, it had dropped to 30. It's the largest racial cleansing in America that I know of."
—Cox Newspapers reporter Elliot Jaspin
In the early 1900s, there were more than 1,000 African Americans in Forsyth County, Georgia, comprising 10 percent of the population. But in 1912, whites violently expelled all black residents from the county. Today, Forsyth County is home to about 150,000 people, more than 95 percent of them white.
In January 1987, a white martial arts instructor in Forsyth County organized a brotherhood march in honor of the first federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and with the intent of countering the area’s racist image. But en route to the event a bus full of marchers was assaulted by a crowd of white supremacists chanting racial slurs and throwing rocks and bottles. In danger of physical harm, the marchers turned back.
Two weeks later, a much larger march involving 20,000 civil rights activists and supporters from across the country headed back to the county in protest. An estimated 5,000 counter-demonstrators also showed up. This large demonstration cost Forsyth County approximately $670,000 in police overtime, angering many local taxpayers who were unhappy at having to foot the bill for what they saw as outside agitators. The town subsequently levied large parade permit fees to discourage future demonstrations, but that effort was disallowed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Forsyth County, Georgia v. The Nationalist Movement, 1992.
These events brought national media attention to the area. News crews and The Oprah Winfrey Show descended on Forsyth County to investigate. The governor set up a biracial commission to try to heal the racial rift, with little success, and a legal team began to assemble a lawsuit on behalf of the descendants of the black families expelled in 1912. While no suit was filed in the end, the team gathered compelling personal stories and hard evidence of widespread land loss.
Building on this evidence, Cox Newspapers reporter Elliot Jaspin was inspired to trace land deeds and tax rolls back to 1912. He found further proof that the majority of the property owned by the banished African Americans was never sold, but instead taken by their white neighbors. Called adverse possession, this process is partly statutory and partly common law, and involves the legal acquisition of a title to a property without having to pay for it. In the case of the land in Forsyth County, white residents simply held the property belonging to black residents following their banishment. In the state of Georgia, the period of adverse possession is seven years. After this period of time, whites legally owned the land.
White title attorneys such as Phil Bettis plead ignorance regarding the appropriation of black-owned land, but some descendants of these black families have declared that the property is rightfully theirs. With missing title transfers and deeds of sale between former black residents and current white property owners are often missing; therefore, returning the land in Forsyth County to the descendants of its rightful owners remains a controversial and legal challenge.