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How a Georgia county’s campaign of terror drove away its black community

In 1912, news of a violent sexual assault enraged the residents of Georgia's Forsyth County and led to a lynching and the execution of two African American teens, as well as a campaign of terror to drive out the entire black community. Special correspondent Duarte Geraldino talks with Patrick Phillips, author of “Blood at the Root,” about healing from a history of racial cleansing.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: Painful divisions that many Americans thought the country had moved past were brought to the surface after the recent presidential election.

    In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center has been keeping a running tab on a spike in hate incidents across the country.

    Special correspondent Duarte Geraldino reports tonight from an area outside Atlanta where lingering racial scars are still being examined for lessons on how to move forward.

    And a warning: The story contains some graphic and offensive language.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    In 1987, race and class divisions erupted as African-American leaders and their supporters tried to march through Forsyth County, Georgia, an area just 40 miles north of Atlanta.

  • Protesters:

    N*****, go home! N*****, go home!

  • Oprah Winfrey, Host, “The Oprah Winfrey Show”:

    Where do the people come from who were shouting “N*****, go home”?

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    A moment of extreme division captured in one of Oprah Winfrey’s first shows. She came to Forsyth after it was thrust into the global spotlight because an unspoken ban on black people was, all at once, being exposed, challenged and proudly defended.

  • Frank Shirley, Committee to Keep Forsyth and Dawson Counties White:

    My name is Frank Shirley. I am head of the Committee to Keep Forsyth Dawson County White. There were thousands of white people that came out to join our white people’s protest.

  • Patrick Phillips, Author, “Blood at the Root:

    A Racial Cleansing in America”: First time anyone, including myself, had seen black faces in Forsyth County.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Yet there were also whites in the area, like Patrick Phillips, who joined African-Americans to oppose the ban. He was just 17 at the time.

  • Patrick Phillips:

    All around me, all of these people started chanting “White power.” And at that point, I realize that I had stumbled my way into the middle of the Klan’s victory celebration for having stopped the march.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    At that point, what goes through your mind?

  • Patrick Phillips:

    I was horrified and kind of shocked.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Phillips says the march came at a time when the community was feeling pressure from what it considered outsiders, a time when speaking up against the racial ban could make you a target.

  • Patrick Phillips:

    I still feel a little bit nervous talking about all of this openly now.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    But, lately, he’s been doing a lot of talking about his childhood in North Georgia and how his experience can help all Americans make sense of today.

  • Patrick Phillips:

    What’s happened in the last couple of months, the ugliness of the campaign, the racial rhetoric and the divisiveness, and I think there are people who want to interpret that as a kind of wrong turning in America.

    I think the other way to interpret it is really more of a revelation of some currents that have been there all along.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Phillips is the author of “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America.” The book is his way of making sense of the place where he grew up.

  • Patrick Phillips:, the myth, was very simple:

    The story that I was told White people rose up. They drove out their black neighbors. They were kept out for 100 years, what I now know as the racial cleansing in 1912.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    We followed his trail of discovery. It begins here at a cemetery beside Pleasant Grove Baptist Church just outside of Cumming, Georgia.

    What is this?

  • Patrick Phillips:

    So, this is the grave of Mae Crow. She comes into the story of Forsyth County’s racial cleansing because, on September 8, 1912, she disappeared in the woods about a mile from her house, and all hell broke loose in Forsyth County on the day of Mae Crow’s funeral.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    According to various accounts, 18-year-old Mae Crow is walking alone in the woods when she’s struck repeatedly with a rock, reportedly sexually assaulted and left for dead.

  • Debbie Vermaat, Grand Nice of Mae Crow:

    She was hit so hard that her eye was dislodged from her skull and left hanging.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Debbie Vermaat is Mae Crow’s grand niece. She keeps a portrait of her in her living room.

  • Debbie Vermaat:

    My grandmother always said that she was known to be the prettiest girl in Forsyth County.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Word of the attack spread quickly. Suspicion soon fell on a group of young African-Americans. Local media condemned them, describing them as the trio as — quote — “the fiendish, low-browed, gorilla-type Negroes.”

    Enraged by the news, a mob immediately lynched one man.

    You believe that some of your distant relatives took part in this lynching?

  • Debbie Vermaat:

    Yes, some of them, I am fairly sure they did. These were the most aggrieved and grieving who wanted justice for what had happened to their loved one.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Two others, both teenagers, were arrested, tried, and convicted. A prominent doctor volunteered land near his home for the court-ordered execution. An estimated 5,000 people showed up to watch the hangings.

  • Debbie Vermaat:

    Well, my grandmother would’ve been 18 months old sitting in her mother’s lap.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Watching someone being lynched.

  • Debbie Vermaat:

    Watching, right.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    So, do you believe that those three people, the two teenagers, the one young man in his 20s, do you believe they were innocent?

  • Debbie Vermaat:

    I do believe they were innocent. I do believe. And I believe it’s a huge cold case that’s still sitting there to try to figure out exactly who did it.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Stories like this were common in the Jim Crow South, but what was unique in this case is what happened next. Newspapers of the day describe a series of late-night attacks on black families, a campaign of terror by whites.

  • Patrick Phillips:

    The Night Riders won. It worked. They succeeded in their goal of driving out the entire black community.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    More than 1,000 African-Americans banished.

  • Patrick Phillips:

    They largely erased all the signs that that community had ever been there.

    At one point, this land belonged to the black community of Forsyth County.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    But not everything was erased. Phillips has spent 10 years looking for physical evidence of Forsyth’s black community, remains of burned-out churches and lands from which African-Americans were driven off.

    Why is it so difficult to find all this stuff?

  • Patrick Phillips:

    Well, I have a land lot number, and that’s it.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Today, much of this land is high-priced real estate, but when Phillips first came, it was a different place.

  • Patrick Phillips:

    In 1977, when my family moved to Forsyth, the place was changing quite a bit. The completion of Highway 400 in the mid-1970s suddenly made Forsyth viable as a bedroom community for people, for professional people working in Atlanta.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Those newcomers weren’t always welcome, though. At the time, fewer than 40,000 people lived here, and some were willing to use extreme measures to protect their way of life.

    Today, more than 200,000 people live in Forsyth. And thanks to a surge in new businesses and high-paying jobs, it’s one of the wealthiest counties in the nation.

  • Patrick Phillips:

    To successfully erase this kind of land theft, to ignore its impact over generations is really damaging.

    Come on up, Duarte.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Phillips’ search did turn up one major marker.

    Remember the home of the wealthy landowner who volunteered his backyard for the public hangings in 1912? It’s been meticulously restored, and now houses the local Chamber of Commerce.

    James McCoy is the chamber’s CEO.

  • James Mccoy, Cumming-Forsyth Chamber of Commerce:

    You know, the events in — particularly in 1987, it was a soul-searching moment for this community. Much of that was driven by the business community.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Since 1987, the Chamber’s membership has evolved, moving from mostly mom-and-pop businesses to larger corporations explicitly bound by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

  • James Mccoy:

    We went from probably a little over 90 percent being micro-enterprises, one or two employees, to companies that are more in the mid-range of business of anywhere between 25 and 200 employees.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    You can measure just how far Forsyth has come by the candidacy of Democrat Daniel Blackman. He ran to represent the county in the Georgia State Senate.

  • Daniel Blackman, Former Georgia State Senatorial Candidate:

    I didn’t win, but we got 21 percent of the vote. And I’m almost positive to say that some white folks voted for me.

    So the fact that I’m in this county, and we were able to run, and I’m a black candidate, I think that really speaks volumes, and it shows that we are going in the right direction.

    DUARTE GERALDINO: Still, less than 5 percent of all Forsyth residents are black. Yet, unlike many African-Americans before him, Blackman is vowing to stay. He owns a strategic communications business and is raising his family here.

  • Daniel Blackman:

    I’m not going anywhere for a long time.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    But, for Phillips and Vermaat, the weight of their Forsyth roots are too heavy. Both moved up North decades ago.

  • Patrick Phillips:

    We were raised with this notion that, every day, America gets a little bit more just, every day, the wheels of progress kind of move forward.

    And I think, in the research, I learned that some — what that leaves out is that sometimes the gains of one generation are given back in the next.

  • Debbie Vermaat:

    Because, down there, nobody wanted to talk about it.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Vermaat now lives in the Philadelphia area and gives talks to mostly white groups on the lessons of her family’s past and what it means for today.

    I asked her if she feels the country has moved past the kinds of racial conflict that Forsyth experienced.

  • Debbie Vermaat:

    No. There are still so many places that are white enclaves. We are still a very segregated country.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Confirming the reasons Vermaat was so fearful, the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented more than 1,000 incidents of racial intimidation since the presidential election.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Duarte Geraldino in Forsyth County, Georgia.

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