"All over the county, beneath the ground on which black churches stood, the soil is rich with ashes."
In Blood at the Root (W.W. Norton and Company, 2016), award-winning poet and author Patrick Phillips returns to the rural community of Forsyth County, Georgia - home in his teenage years - to shed desperately-needed light upon an extraordinarily dark and grim period of collective racial violence. Over the course of a few months in the fall of 1912, in response to two alleged crimes against white women, the facts and perpetrators of which were never proven, white night riders embarked on a systematic and relentless terror campaign against African American residents, driving them out of the county, forcing them to abandon property and belongings in fear for their lives, never to return.
While acts of brutality against African American people were, unfortunately, not uncommon in Georgia or other places throughout the south following the Civil War and the Jim Crow era, the fact that the white residents of Forsyth County not only forced all of its black residents from the community, but also vigilantly enforced its exclusive whiteness for another 80 years, was exceptional. Forsyth County became well known throughout the state as a place where black people were not only unwelcome to take up residence, they could not even safely set foot in the county.
I found Blood at the Root both riveting and wrenching. While the broader history of the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and civil rights in the south is familiar to me, this specific history was not, and the book made that history very real. Phillips not only takes us deep into the details of the violent events of 1912, but also into the lives and characters of the actors and the deeply-held principles that shaped their actions or failures to act. One cannot fail to be dismayed by the many ways in which the court proceedings and executions played out as theater, and the extent to which collusion and corruption made the injustice possible. The author also helps us understand how, by allowing the farce of a trial and failing to hold the night riders accountable, these long-ago incidents created a local norm of denial and collective silence that persisted and manifested itself in acts of hate up through the late 1980s. Above all, I found Blood at the Root very relevant to us today: When you watch the news, heartbroken and baffled about the existence of violence and hatred in this modern day, and you wonder how it can still be, this book offers context and perspective.
I received my complimentary copy of Blood at the Root from the publisher.