Southern trees bear strange fruit, / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Using these lyrics from a poem by Abel Meeropol, immortalized in Billie Holliday’s song about lynching, author Patrick Phillips opens his tale of terror, theft and racial apartheid in one Georgia county, USA. Following a brutal assault on a white woman in 1912, the white residents of Forsyth County quickly blamed some black teens, and lynched one of them in the town square the very next day. The two other defendants, Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniels, were quickly found guilty in a sham one-day trial, and hanged. One of the boys had a noose placed around his neck to extract a confession.
Blood at the Root describes all-too-familiar racist atrocities — a corrupt local sheriff, a kangaroo court, the never-ending threat of violence toward Black Americans under many decades of Jim Crow. But what happened next was an even graver travesty.
A reign of white terrorism descended on Forsyth County after the trial. Black churches were burned down, Black sharecroppers blasted from their cabins by sticks of dynamite, and Black landowners forced to abandon their farms in the middle of the night. The goal was to drive every African American out of the area, an entirely successful goal for nearly 80 years. So effective, Phillips points out, that Forsyth County never found it necessary to post the “whites only” signs so indicative of the Jim Crow South.
Scrupulous history. Phillips does not merely recite the story of the forced Black exodus, however. The first third of Blood at the Root is devoted to a meticulous examination of the Jim Crow world in which both victims and perpetrators lived. Phillips’ research reveals the individual Black residents whose lives were ruptured. There are excruciating photos of lynching victims, along with the particulars of their ordeals. He was even able to unearth contemporary photos of some of the people he writes about.
In one appalling story, Phillips tells of Laura Nelson from another county in Georgia. When she protested the abduction and lynching, threatening to swear out a complaint, she was lynched on the spot. Pregnant at the time, Nelson was hanged upside down and set on fire. The baby was cut from its mother’s womb and stomped to death.
Another woman was hanged by a white mob after she protested the treatment of her 15-year-old son who was accused of stealing.
These gruesome tales illustrate how lynching was not exclusively committed against Black men accused of raping white women. It was a chilling weapon used against a whole “wrong-colored” population.
Then and now. Phillips is not just a careful historian or journalist, however. He grew up in Forsyth County, moving there with his family in the 1970s. Blood at the Root is his toil to uncover the truth of Forsyth County’s legacy of white supremacy. A Black woman friend not raised in Forsyth urged him to take on this task. Through painstaking research, Phillips forces readers to confront this country’s legacy. We learn the names of lynching victims, their trumped-up crimes, the names of their murderers. We learn about the former slave who owned the land stolen by white neighbors, and what happened to the Black residents of Forsyth County once they were forced out.
There is a long section devoted to the crooked dealings of the local sheriff. And we are told about Joseph Kellogg, a former slave, who owned 120 acres stolen by whites. Clearly, whites’ land theft was a primary reason Black landowners were run out of the county.
Forsyth County did not have a civil rights demonstration until 1987, on the second anniversary of Martin Luther King day. By then the more progressive population of Atlanta had expanded north. Phillips’ parents and sister participated in the march and his mother wound up testifying against the local thugs who rioted against marchers that day. Today, anti-racist residents of Forsyth County far outnumber those thugs.
Reading Blood at the Root, I was struck over and over with one thought. Whites in the United States are more than likely living under apartheid this very day. They tend to marry each other, live together, socialize and attend school in largely segregated neighborhoods. For all the progress among individuals in mitigating racism over the last 100 years, the stubborn fact of ongoing segregation in U.S. society is like the elephant in the room — we all know it’s there.
In his fine book, Patrick Phillips provides the tools to broaden readers’ self-education, and stirs us to tackle apartheid lifestyle in the here-and-now. It’s going to take a conscious, multi-hued political movement to challenge the systemic race segregation that still defines this land.
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